- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

TEL AVIV, D.C., Israel, Jan. 27 (UPI) — A hundred young volunteers from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's election campaign Likud Party danced and clapped hands Thursday to the rhythmic tune of the Likud Party's election jingle, which played at a deafening volume at party headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv.

When the bulky, silver-haired, candidate made his entrance, the youngsters climbed on the white plastic chairs to cheer him. With right hands raised, they started the count — one to 40. That's the number of parliamentary seats party stalwarts have predicted for the right Likud in Tuesday's elections.

The atmosphere was decidedly that of a winning party.

In a theater hall in the nearby town of Givatayim, an older audience of Labor Party supporters applauded when party and main candidate Chairman Amram Mitzna declared that if he loses the elections, he will lead Labor in the opposition. The party would not accept an offer to join the government. It would also offer support on "national issues," but "day by day remind Israelis there is another way," Mitzna said.

As usual in Israeli elections, 4 million voters will Tuesday be faced with an explosion of candidates. This time the list includes 28 parties ranging from a very hawkish Herut that almost openly advocates an expulsion of Arabs, to the Arab nationalist Balad; from the stridently secular Shinui to the ultra-orthodox Shas.

One of the new parties is Green Leaf. Its Web site features a quote from former U.S. President Bill Clinton saying that possession of small quantities of marihuana should not be grounds for criminal charges.

With the campaign lasting from Nov. 5 — when the Labor Party quit the national unity government — to Tuesday providing so little time, political analysts pointed out that the parties had to cram everything, including selection of their candidates, into fewer than 90 days.

The resulting campaign seemed hurried and lacking in depth, with very few rallies, wall posters, bumper stickers or fliers. The mailbox of one voter near Tel Aviv contained only three party fliers throughout the campaign.

Sharon avoided appearing on television talk shows and debates. His main appearance, on a live broadcast, was to defend himself and his sons against allegations of corruption.

The haste is compounded by public indifference: Tuesday's elections will be the third since May 1999 and "the public is tired," former minister Dalia Itzik, of the Labor Party, suggested.

Professor Asher Arian of Haifa University's Political Science Department said that based on polls he has conducted, he has "never seen a sadder, more tired, more fatigued, more frustrated electorate. They are disenchanted with the politicians and the political system, which has not delivered peace, territorial integrity, employment or prosperity."

A public opinion poll published Friday in the Haaretz newspaper seemed to back Arian's observation: 65 percent of the respondents said their confidence in the political system was low.

All parties were allotted campaign time on Israel's three TV stations but few people watched those programs. Only 20 percent watched the first broadcasts, and within days the rating dropped to 13 percent, noted Professor Gabriel Weimann, who chairs Haifa University's Department of Communications.

The news coverage seemed more in the style of covering a horse race, Weimann told United Press International. Most of the items concerned public opinion polls, possible coalitions, the scandals that accompanied the Likud primaries and police investigations of alleged corruption. The issues didn't seem to matter.

The campaign might have been different had more fiery personalities headed the big parties. Instead, Sharon kept his distance from the media, opting for a calmer campaign, and Mitzna is modest, non-aggressive in public appearances, Weimann said.

The Likud's senior representative in the Central Elections Committee, former minister Mikki Eitan, told UPI that during most of the campaign it was clear the Likud was winning, so "there was no reason for excitement." Whether Labor gets 18 or 20 mandates did not really interest anybody, he claimed.

Analysts said the Israeli public had never seemed so divided in what they wanted. They want Israel to be tough in fighting terror but realize there is no military solution to the conflict.

According to recent polls, about one-third support a "transfer" of Palestinians to Arab countries. Yet, there is increasing readiness to evacuate Jewish settlements, accept a Palestinian state, and divide Jerusalem, Professor Michal Shamir of Tel Aviv University noted.

"Israeli voters are siding with moderate positions but want the right to implement them. They want Labor's programs in Likud dress," Arian said. When voters are asked if they want war or peace with the Palestinians, they answer — both.

More than two years into the intifada, "the dreams are over. There is no attractive solution on the horizon. There is ambivalence, bewilderment, wavering," Shamir said.

Mitzna has been advocating a unilateral pullback if no agreement is reached, but many Israelis are wary. They don't really know the man who has been mayor of Haifa in recent years. His past as a decorated major general and head of the Central Command that includes the West Bank is largely forgotten.

So the public's attitude is, "Better the devil you know (Sharon) than the angel you don't know," said a disenchanted Labor Party Knesset candidate, Dani Korn, who watched his chances of becoming a legislator slip away in recent years.

At the Likud event, a reporter approached two high school students who have been distributing party leaflets in Upper Nazareth. "Why do you think Sharon was so good?" the reporter asked one of them.

There was a long silence. "Mitzna is a lefty." There was a tone of revulsion in his voice. "He will divide Jerusalem," he added.

Sharon has failed to make good the main 1999 election promise to bring peace and security. He produced neither. The death toll from the intifada has climbed steeply under his watch and by now totals 726 on the Israeli side. The economy is deteriorating.

"It's not that the left loves Mitzna and the right loves Sharon. It is that all love Sharon's leadership qualities," Arian suggested.

"Details don't interest people. People react to symbols. If you say peace and tough, that is good. And peace and tough means Sharon."

Thursday evening, Mitzna recalled an encounter he had earlier in the day during one of his street walks in the south.

A young woman, tears in her eyes, told him that she was an unemployed single parent and does not know whether she will have enough food for her daughter next week.

"Whom will you vote for?" he asked.

"Sharon," she answered.

Asked why, she said: "Because you're going to give them Gaza!" Mitzna wants to pull out of almost all of impoverished, teeming Gaza Strip that pins down an Israeli division to protect its few thousand settlers.

"Many people don't understand the link between their present situation and the prospects for a change, an ability to get out of this situation," Mitzna said.

At the Likud headquarters, Sharon tried to get the youngsters to make a last effort at vote getting. "Labor governments brought the intifada instead of quiet, war instead of peace," he intoned. "One must not negotiate under fire. There will be no concession to terror. A unilateral withdrawal is not a recipe for peace. It is a recipe for war."

Latest public opinion polls show Likud winning 32 to 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Likud and the other right-wing and religious parties will get some 65 places. Forecasts say the center block — including Shinui — will gain 19 seats and Labor, the dovish Meretz and the Arab parties will have about 36 seats.

Without a clear majority, Sharon will need to form a coalition. His declared preference is to form a broad-based national unity government, veteran politicians like himself with whom he feels comfortable. Mitzna, however, says he would not serve in a Sharon government. Shinui's leader, Tommy Lapid, says he would only join a coalition that includes both Likud and Labor.

If Labor and Shinui stand by those pledges, Sharon will have a problem.

On paper he can form a right-wing religious coalition, but he will have a tough life there. Sharon went into the election stating that he would accept the U.S. roadmap for peace, albeit with many conditions, acknowledging the need for an independent Palestinian state. Yet, even that has been too much for the extreme right-wing parties.

Without the hawkish Ihud Leumi's eight votes, he would have no government, but the political antecedents are not encouraging.

At Thursday's, meeting Sharon noted the extreme right-wing parties toppled Likud governments in 1992 and 1999. Last year, when Labor quit his government, he tried to form a narrowly based right-wing coalition.

"I encountered unparalleled extortion. I was forced to go to the president and resign," he recalled.

Israelis now have an opportunity to change the political situation and believe they are not going to do so.

A public opinion poll published Friday in Yediot Aharonot showed that 68 percent of the respondents believe the security situation under the next government will be the same, or worse; 72 percent believe the political situation will be the same, or worse.

Nor do they expect the new government to last long: 29 percent of the respondents predict it will last a year or less, while 34 percent gave it two years.

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