What Are the Elections About, Anyhow?

In Tuesday's elections we'll be voting on everything from the threat of Iran to Israel's set borders to the country's domestic problems.

Like blind people moving their hands over an elephant and not knowing what it is because everyone is touching a different part, the voting public is wandering through the jungle of polls, election spots and messages, and wondering what is to be decided at the ballot box the day after tomorrow. The threat from Iran? The border between Israel and the Palestinian state? The safety of takeoffs and landings at Ben-Gurion International Airport? The level of the minimum wage? Which medications will be subsidized? A place in paradise?

The smoke of the battlefield hanging over the election campaign is not unique to Israel: In many democratic countries a tendency exists to blur ideological lines among parties and candidates. Contenders seek the widest possible audience, and will therefore dull their messages. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the present campaign: Although the three large parties maintain differing worldviews regarding the Palestinians and the future of the West Bank, they have gone to great pains to blur them. Thus, Ehud Olmert declared his intention to withdraw from most of the West Bank, but at the same time spoke of convergence into the large settlement blocs and control of wide security zones; Amir Peretz said the Geneva formula was the key to solving the conflict, but then reneged and even responded similarly to the right-wing parties with regard to the rise of Hamas; Benjamin Netanyahu argues that he is looking toward compromise and an arrangement with the Palestinians, but presented them with conditions that realistically mean maintaining the status quo.

Before slipping the ballot into the box, it would be best to peel away the layers around the kernel that nourishes the attitude of the three large parties to the future of relations with the Palestinians; this is, after all, the main issue to be decided by the voter.

The Likud aspires to hold on to the entire West Bank and believes in a brute-force solution to the conflict. Labor believes in almost total withdrawal and in achieving an agreement; Kadima seeks to apply a unilateral solution that will include significant evacuation of the West Bank, annexation of settlement blocs behind the separation fence, and the creation of a military balance of deterrence. Meretz has taken a stand alongside Labor, the National Union and the National Religious Party alongside the Likud. Yisrael Beiteinu is also in the latter camp with a unique solution (redrawing the borders of the country while distancing Arab citizens from it). The stands of the minority parties are basically to deny the Zionist nature of the state, while the ultra-Orthodox parties have their own agenda.

It cannot be said that Israeli society has not taken a significant step in these elections on the way to making the necessary determination about its future relationship to the Palestinians: It is about to choose between three alternatives, two of which reflect clear willingness to give up large parts of the West Bank. This step is still partial and is not sufficiently enunciated. The country must obviously experience still more agony before it gathers the strength to conduct the inevitable debate on the future of the territories.

From this point of view, the election campaign now drawing to a close has missed an opportunity: this national process of elucidation should have taken place over the past four months; the question of withdrawal now or continued occupation should have stood out in sharp relief on the agenda. But it turns out these processes need additional time.

When Israel's citizens were asked in 1969 what they thought was the most important problem with which the government should deal, 80 percent said foreign policy and only 20 percent said domestic problems. This year the answer was 38 percent foreign policy and 62 percent domestic. Thirty-seven years ago, 98 percent of Likud voters said security and/or peace were the major considerations in their vote, while only 60 percent said so three years ago. For Labor voters, the figures were 80 percent in 1969 and 50 percent in 2003 (statistics according to the Israel Democracy Institute). These figures reveal how consistent the trend is to seek release from the burden of security, which stems to a great extent from continued control of the territories, and to focus on improving quality of life within the boundaries of the state - and also how slow that trend is.