Last Friday, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Neve Ya'akov neighborhood in Jerusalem. In other times this combination of words - Bibi, right-wing Neve Ya'akov, and four days before elections - would have been a sort of chemical brew, a catalyst creating a political explosion of emotions. Rhythmic chants of "Bibi-Bibi" and "Bibi, king of Israel," would have filled the air, only to be brushed aside by some dismissive Netanyahu gesture of false modesty.
Not this time. In this election race there is no king in Israel. There are gray politicians the public regards with suspicion, indifference and disgust - worse, these politicians seem have no relevance to the people's lives. "What kind of elections are these?" said Zion Seri, a resident of the neighborhood. "Where are the days of (Menachem) Begin? There was atmosphere, there was enthusiasm. That's over with. Bibi? He can come, for all I care. They don't think about us, so we also don't think about them."
There have been many important and dramatic moments in this election race but Bibi's visit was the most symbolic one - not for what it had, but for what it did not have. There was no "election fever," no atmosphere, no heat, no passion.
A few dozen elderly immigrants, whose lives are anything but easy, mingled with a handful of veterans when the foreign minister came to the plaza in the commercial center. They did not relate as national leader, an almost candidate for prime minister, but as if he were the head of the neighborhood administration, and they brought up local issues.
"The mayor has neglected this neighborhood," they said. "I want them not to forget our neighborhood after the elections," said someone.
The brother of Revital Barashi, who was killed in the terror attack on the university cafe at Mount Scopus, pulled out a picture of his sister and showed it to Netanyahu. He seized the moment to deliver a speech on the need to defeat the Palestinians militarily, to change their regime like the Americans changed the regime in Germany and Japan after World War II.
No one had the patience to listen. Barashi's picture was more palpable and one woman tried to convince the big man from the Likud that Avigdor Lieberman, MK (National Union) is a better man than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Evade and vanish
Another woman complained about blight in the adjacent forest and Netanyahu put on a little show of demanding that his aides bring this immediately to the attention of the environment minister.
Not a single "big" issue was raised; not a single defense or foreign policy question was put to the foreign minister. It was as if no one believed he had any ability to address such matters - better he should hear the problems of the neighborhood, even if he is international affairs minister.
One resident tried to liven up the meeting with a little weak humor, asking in a challenging tone: "Bibi! Maybe you can explain to me who this Mitzna is?" The foreign minister neatly evaded this, autographed two Russian language Sharon campaign brochures, and promptly vanished.
"How can there be any happiness when there are elections every two years?" asked Mikahil, a doctor who immigrated from Russia and supports Lieberman. "I'm glad Lieberman is gaining ground in the polls, but these elections that come around every two years are no good for the country's stability."
"There was no need at all for them," grumbled Yefim, a school maintenance man. "Before a war you don't hold elections."
Miriam Ben-Hamou, a hospital X-ray technician, agreed. "It's a waste of money. It's true there is now an opportunity to move from the Likud to Lieberman, but that's not enough reason to waste money on elections. And this transition to Lieberman is also hard for me - I've been a Likudnik all my life," she adds, seemingly on the verge of tears. "What kind of an election campaign has it been? They didn't talk about anything. It's disgusting."
This opportunity to take part in "a celebration of democracy" is scarcely enchanting. Democracy too has a kind of biological clock, and tampering with it sickens the body politic.
It is doubtful if any citizen will wake up tomorrow morning declaring "a new day has dawned." Using cliches about "celebrating democracy" are a sure formula for drawing scorn from people. To the lexicon of greetings one Israeli uses to encourage another, a new one has been added - "it will soon be over" - meaning the election.
It has been both the shortest and the longest election race ever because quite simply, to most people it looked unnecessary. In random conversations with voters, it was impossible to find any group that is happy with having elections - except perhaps those around Shinui leader Tommy Lapid. The right is anyway confident of victory and the distribution of Knesset seats within the bloc does not look to its supporters like a sufficient reason to drag them to polling stations again.
Voters on the left are split down the middle. Those who favor a national unity government hold that it was unnecessary to have pulled out of the coalition in the first place, a move it will now be difficult to reverse. Those who oppose a coalition under Sharon fear that Labor will in any case crawl back into one.
So the prevailing sense is not of a "celebration of democracy" but more one of gang rape. Nearly everyone is wondering why unwelcome elections have been forced on them, suddenly and against their will, in the middle of terror attacks, economic recession and waiting for a new war.
When asked who she would vote for, one Jerusalem woman said without hesitation "Saddam Hussein." Amazed by what had slipped off her tongue, she hastened to apologize: "I'm sorry, I got confused. I'm thinking about the war all the time and everything gets mixed up in my head."
The sense of coercion and the absence of real tension in elections where the outcome seems to be a forgone conclusion have fostered indifference. It's not just ordinary people either, but even committed activists feel the same. "The elections were forced on us," says Uri Cohen, who heads the Likud election headquarters in Jerusalem, the most political city in the country. "People are tired, burned out, hurt, mourning. It isn't easy for politics to take off in this climate. It was even hard to motivate fervent activists. The `night commandos' (poster-pasting activists) came to ask for posters only this week. At long last, I was glad to see them."
David Buzaglo of Migdal Ha'emek, also feels grass roots indifference, combined with deep anger. He went over to Lieberman from Likud after the party's internal elections, and has now transferred his former Likud fervor he learned in his parents' home to Lieberman. He has spent weeks traversing the country to recruit votes for his new party, but although he has been successful and even won over voters from Kibbutz Gvat, he still thinks the elections are totally unnecessary.
"It's just muscle-flexing at the public expense," he says. "No one wants these elections. I talk to a lot of people on the left, and they feel the same way. The money that has been wasted on papers and posters that are now littering the streets could have fed a lot of mouths. We've spent millions - maybe billions - which we'll be paying for later. Silvan [Finance Minister Shalom] has already said we will pay."
Worse than `them'
Buzaglo wonders what have we accomplished at the end of it all. "Believe me, we are worse than the Palestinian Authority. They at least take money for themselves that they get from the world. Our politicians take money from their own people - and for whom? Nowadays, there aren't any leaders any more - there are just officials. Even the prime minister is just an official occupying the job of prime minister."
The profound sense of alienation could be interpreted as a process of maturing and awakening. But it looks more like another crack in the democratic system. There has been an election campaign in which personal corruption was exposed and suspicions swirled around the prime minister. Yet the race didn't even become one about personality and character, as it has in the past - notably in Netanyahu's second run for prime minister, and for Ehud Barak.
This time even a scandal didn't catch fire. This is because of a prevailing assumption that they're all corrupt - "even if we don't know it yet," as many people are saying - and because the public is concerned about other issues that the election campaign never even dealt with.
This morning, many citizens would have expected to go out not just to polling stations, but to National Insurance Institute offices to pick up their shrivelled allowances. The dole has been postponed because of the election, but people are far more preoccupied by their dwindling bank accounts than by the ballot box.
Even those who are not immediately worried by cuts in allowances, or about being evicted because they can't meet mortgage payments (a growing phenomenon) are sunk into waiting for the booms of war or terrorism. Who has the strength to bother their heads about the complexities of a loan from South Africa or some Greek island that pops up unexpectedly? So this wasn't an election race about personality and character, and it wasn't a race about issues. It was in fact an election campaign about nothing at all.
"This is one of the Likud's greatest successes," says Professor Gad Barzilai, an expert on domestic politics at Tel Aviv University. "Its strategists completely prevented the main issues from coming up. They prevented Sharon from appearing much in public or taking part in debates. In this way the myth of Sharon has remained greater than all the failures of Sharon. We have come through an election race without an agenda, but with a loss of faith in the democratic process. It is more and more seen as true that the political parties are incapable of finding solutions for the problems bothering the public."
Still turning out
And yet, this campaign has not been that exceptional - Barzilai says there have been other election campaigns without issues. During the War of Attrition Golda Meir was seen as the preferred alternative, and there have been other post-trauma elections. If this election has been held, in Barzilai's opinion, against the background trauma of Oslo's failure, it only resembles the election in 1974, after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War.
Despite everything even if voter turnout falls somewhat, it will remain among the highest in the Western democracies. "If we judge democracy by how many people turn up at polling stations, then Israel's political process still works. It is necessary to distinguish between the public attitude to `elections' - and to `these elections,'" said Barzilai.
"Most people think these elections were not necessary, but this will not be expressed in voter turnout. This is because the political system in Israel is still very much party-based, and the parties are still the engine for bringing voters to the polls. There is also a high level of political awareness and a high level of anxiety - and these come together in a feeling that it is possible to reduce the anxiety by making a correct political decision. Nonetheless, this belief is also being undermined."
Within the mass of grumblers who are trooping off to polling stations today complaining about the coercion and waste, there is a small group that is going to vote with a real sense of excitement - and these are young people voting for the first time.
Sharbal Agina, 19, a Christian Arab who lives in Haifa and a student of communications at a college in Netanya, thinks Arab voters of his age can become "princes for a day." Agina has already decided to vote for Balad and, like many of his friends, he feels a real sense of importance and an ability to change things.
"Everyone is courting us," he says. "It's even a little scary. I imagine the Jewish young person is being courted less. They know it makes no difference whether the young person votes for the right or left - they will remain in their Jewish home. With us, they are afraid the young person will go out the window and vote for a Jewish party. With us, the courtship is double - both from Arab parties among themselves, and in their effort to block votes for Zionist parties. I'm a happy voter."
No one has been courting Michal Wargaft, who is 19, from Jerusalem, and is wavering between Mitzna and Meretz. "I feel pressured," she says. "When they brought the elections forward, I really panicked; suddenly I felt a terrible responsibility." She tried to watch the campaign broadcasts but gave up. Only a few empty slogans stuck in her mind from the campaign and didn't help her to make a decision.
"Nothing in the education system prepares you for this," she says. "They don't give us the tools for this sort of thinking. I don't have any sense of `celebrating democracy.' It's all much more cynical and much more complicated."
A driver who has shuttled back and forth to campaign events as part of his job summed up this peculiar election race: "This is the first election campaign in which everyone promises that things are going to get worse. This at least is one election promise we know they will keep.
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