- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

TEL AVIV A once unthinkable option for Israelis is emerging as they prepare to elect a new prime minister, a protest in which voters either stuff a blank slip into the ballot box or simply stay at home.
In a country where election turnouts often top 90 percent, refusing to vote runs almost against the nature of Israelis.
But some analysts predict that up to 20 percent of the electorate might do just that on Tuesday, when the nation decides between current Prime Minister Ehud Barak or opposition leader Ariel Sharon.
"If you're smart, you'll select the white ballot" reads one banner stretched taut across an apartment balcony on trendy Basel Street in Tel Aviv.
In Hebrew it rhymes.
The ambivalence of many Israelis is not for lack of burning issues or clear ideological differences between the candidates.
Israelis generally believe that the fate of Arab-Israeli peacemaking hangs in the balance in this election, with Mr. Barak pledging to push through a deal with the Palestinians and Mr. Sharon widely expected to slow the peace process to a halt.
The problem for both candidates is grounded in character. Mr. Barak's leadership style, aloof and often clumsy, has turned away whole sections of his electorate in the past 20 months.
But many of his erstwhile supporters would never dream of voting for Mr. Sharon, with his penchant for military adventurism and unbending politics.
"They both smell bad," said Tami Ohayon, a 23-year-old student at Tel Aviv University. "I'm not voting this time, and I'm not embarrassed to admit it."
Miss Ohayon is one variety of abstainer, a political centrist who supported Mr. Barak in 1999 and generally favors compromising with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But she ticks off a litany of gripes against Mr. Barak his go-it-alone decision-making, his political zigzag, his willingness to accommodate special-interest groups in order remain in office, and ultimately his failure to deliver on campaign promises.
Mr. Barak appeared to lose more ground to Mr. Sharon yesterday as a Jerusalem Post poll showed Mr. Sharon's lead widening to 22 percentage points from 16 on Friday.
Analysts say voters such as Miss Ohayon are part of a substantial group of disenchanted centrists who voted for Mr. Barak in the last election and might have shifted to the right-wing candidate if it were not Mr. Sharon.
Other disappointed voters come from the left corner of the political spectrum, where the debate between choosing Mr. Barak as the lesser of two evils or staying home on election day is conducted through the prism of ideology and history.
Shulamit Aloni, the matriarch of Israel's mainstream left, argues against abstaining, drawing a comparison to the dilemmas faced by leftists in Weimar Germany.
We must not forget that in another period in history the Communists helped bring Hitler to power by refusing to cooperate with the Social Democrats, said Miss Aloni, speaking at an open forum this week in Tel Aviv on the merits and drawbacks of abstaining.
The reference to Hitler perhaps the hardest punch an Israeli could throw at a political opponent was Miss Aloni's way of saying that by abstaining, left-wing voters would be colluding willy-nilly with Mr. Sharon.
But Miss Aloni drew fire from panelists with more dovish views.
"Barak wrecked any chance for peace with his crackdown on Palestinians and now he wants us to give him our votes, to declare that what he did was OK," said Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor, arguing in favor of abstaining.

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