In the last few weeks of the American election campaign, it certainly looked like a tight race. The exit polls on election night indicated a Kerry victory, and for 24 hours after the election, it looked like the vote count in the key state of Ohio was going to be a replay of what happened in Florida four years ago. But when it was all over, it was, without doubt, a resounding victory for George W. Bush. A clear victory in the electoral college and a three-and-a-half million vote margin in the popular vote.
This was the first American presidential election in many years in which the state of the economy was not the overriding issue. "It's the economy, stupid" brought victory to Bill Clinton over Bush Sr. 12 years ago, but this time it was clear that the elections were being held in the shadow of 9/11 - the Islamic terror attack on the U.S. three years ago.
In all the pre-election polls rating the leadership qualities of Kerry and Bush, Kerry led, except when it came to the war against terror - here Bush received an approval rating of 58 percent. And that is evidently what counted. Kerry may have been more articulate in the presidential debates, but most voters approved of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq; and again, that is what counted with many voters as they stepped into the voting booth. With the majority of American citizens seeing the U.S. as being at war, they voted for the man whom they thought was best qualified to lead their nation in this war.
Many did not see it that way. Much was made of the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, that the president was supposed to have been responsible for a major intelligence failure, that there had not been sufficient planning for the aftermath of a military victory there, that there seemed to be no plan for getting out of the quagmire that Iraq had become. In other words, Bush was presented as being incompetent, and the military operation in Iraq, as a dangerous and unnecessary adventure.
Here Americans were challenged to make a judgment: Just how big was the danger of Islamic terrorism to America and to the world? How was it to be fought? Was totalitarian rule in Islamic countries the root cause of this threat against the Western world, and was bringing democracy to these countries the solution? Enough questions to puzzle all experts on the Islamic world and terrorism. Here the average American was called upon to decipher the pattern of recent events. It was truly a problem in pattern recognition, a sort of political Rorschach test.
Presumably the average Israeli, with many years of life in the Middle East under his belt, and not inconsiderable experience in fighting Palestinian terrorism, is better qualified to pass this test. Most Israelis probably favored Bush over Kerry for the simple reason that Bush in the past four years had established a record of friendship for Israel and an understanding of the measures Israel had taken in its fight against Palestinian terrorism. It is precisely for these reasons that other Israelis were hoping that Kerry would win - someone who was likely to show less understanding for targeted killing of Palestinian terrorist leaders, who might pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
Israelis are also faced with a problem of pattern recognition. Can Palestinian terrorism be defeated, or is it a bottomless barrel? Is it part of worldwide Islamic terrorism? Can it be appeased by making political concessions? Will unilateral withdrawal, or the so-called disengagement plan, only encourage further acts of Palestinian terrorism?
There is no shortage of experts in Israel on this problem. But in the final analysis, the Israeli men and women in the street are called upon to make the choice, to see through the maze of arguments and counter-arguments and decide. Does the majority of the men and women in the street know better than the experts? Do they know better than the media? Do they know better than some of their leaders? The fact that democratic countries are on the whole better managed than dictatorships tends to bear that out. Vox populi, vox Dei.
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