POLITICS: Rating the race

How did such an event-filled election run-up produce the most complacent campaign in Israel's history?

olmert and bibi 88 (photo credit: )
olmert and bibi 88
(photo credit: )
Former prime minister Shimon Peres called the current Knesset election "the most boring in Israel's history" this week. The 82-year-old Kadima candidate, who was first elected to the Knesset in 1959, should know, having taken an active role in every single election the country has had and run for prime minister in many of them. What Peres meant was that the electorate has been more complacent than ever. Streets that are normally full of campaign posters are surprisingly bare; the number of cars with party bumper-stickers has dropped dramatically; and newspaper headlines a week before the election have been dominated not by election fever but by Avian flu. But how can an election be considered boring when it is characterized by so many events that will inevitably end up in Israel's history books? As commentator Ben Caspit wrote this week, an Israeli returning from a six-month trek through an isolated jungle would be shocked at the transformation the country has undergone. He would be astounded that Ariel Sharon is no longer prime minister, that Ehud Olmert is favored to win the election by a landslide, that Shimon Peres is no longer in Labor, that Tzahi Hanegbi is in a party that calls for the immediate removal of most West Bank settlements and that the Palestinian Authority is controlled by Hamas. The entire political map has been realigned. The Likud Party that dominated Israeli politics for five years has self-destructed. The two main parties to the right of Likud have united. Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as a political force to be reckoned with. Meretz is fielding a haredi woman candidate. And Jews fought Jews in Amona. Why, then, is the electorate so uninterested? Part of the answer lies in the omnipresent polls that have shown little change since shortly after Sharon founded Kadima. The rest of the blame belongs to politicians from across the spectrum who have repulsed an otherwise involved public, driving it into apathy. There are a dozen MKs from the last Knesset who will soon be sitting in jail instead of in cushy parliament seats. Politicians considered corrupt have succeeded, and those who forgot their campaign promises were rewarded, due to perceptions that everyone in politics is somehow tainted by corruption and that none of them keeps promises anyway. And the leaders heading the three largest parties have been more of a deterrent than an asset in motivating the masses. The political parties have spent millions of shekels promoting themselves and trying to inspire the voters. If the polls are any indication, most of the money was wasted. But there have also been some notable campaign success stories. Now, with four days to go, The Jerusalem Post presents the third and final installment of its primer for the perplexed on the plethora of political parties, focusing this time on the campaigns that have flown and floundered. Kadima Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's so-called "ranch forum" advisers - Reuven Adler, Lior Chorev and Eyal Arad - have not had an easy job to do since Sharon's stroke. Kadima's strategy was to paint the party as the one to bring the country into the next stage of a historical process that began with Herzl, continued with Ben-Gurion and proceeded to Sharon. That picture might have persuaded many voters, but the jump to Olmert was a tougher sell. While conventional wisdom had it that the party's fall in the polls had to do with corruption charges plaguing Kadima candidates, the descent also coincided with Olmert's shift from behaving in a statesmanlike manner after Sharon's stroke to being himself. Unlike Sharon, who could get away with saying nothing but "trust me," Olmert has had to put all his plans on the table. Because of this, the mandates Kadima wins on March 28 will be to his credit and cannot be attributed solely to Sharon's legacy. Labor-Meimad The party switched campaign strategists from Moti Morell and Ronen Tzur to Shmulik Cohen, Stanley Greenberg and Jeremy Rossner to Ronnie Rimon, who finished off the campaign solo. But many in Labor would say the problem was not with the strategists, but with the candidate at the top of the list. Since Amir Peretz defeated Peres, the party's mandates have fallen significantly. Peretz took a big gamble in focusing on socioeconomic issues in a country where the message is not "it's the economy stupid," but "it's stupid to bring up the economy." One of Labor's slogans was "the time has come" to focus on issues that have been swept under the rug, like poverty and health care, and not just matters of security and where the country's borders should be. If the polls end up accurate, Peretz could be remembered as a man who was ahead of his time. Likud Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu likes to say he inherited a party that was expected to win 10 seats and he may end up winning twice as much. But the polls are saying that the Likud is still staggering around the same 15 seats it was on the day after Sharon left the party. Netanyahu failed to take advantage of Olmert replacing Sharon, the rise of Hamas, the violence in Amona and the change in the system for electing Likud MKs that Netanyahu passed under the false pretence that it would bring the party an immediate rise of six seats in the polls. Strategists Ethan Dor-Shav and Gil Samsonov have tried many gimmicks, the latest of which was declaring war on the media. After everything else didn't work, if the Likud doesn't end up winning a respectful 18 seats, the party may conclude that its real problem is its leader. Meretz From talking sperm, to a Western Wall that helps homosexuals marry, to an ad where party leader Yossi Beilin said his mother wasn't Palestinian, Meretz strategist Eilon Zarmon has tried to use shock value to wake up young and undecided voters. The polls have shown that it hasn't worked. The electorate hasn't moved. Placing a haredi woman, Tzvia Greenfield, in the sixth slot on the party's list was a good gimmick, but she hasn't brought in any votes from Bnei Brak or Har Nof. If Greenfield doesn't make it into the Knesset, the party will be represented by the same five MKs as last time, except for having replaced one Yossi (Sarid) with another. With Peretz as the main competition, they should have done better. National Union-Religious Party When the two parties announced their partnership, they gave their voters hope that a new Right would arise and eventually become one of the two main parties in Israel. Joint list chairman Benny Elon said it would be easier to build a new main party on the Right than to try to rebuild from the shambles left of the Likud. But so far, the result has been the same nine mandates they were expected to win before the merger. Elon rightly said that without 10 mandates, the merger would be considered a failure. Successful parliamentarians like Gila Finkelstein and Shaul Yahalom would be left jobless, and a right-wing electorate already demoralized by disengagement would be left without enough parliamentary ammunition needed to fight further unilateral withdrawals. For success on Election Day, the party is counting on a low turnout among the general public, and a high one among its idealistic supporters. Shas The party wisely used two different campaigns for its two different constituencies. To target traditional, Sephardi voters on the Right, it attacked Netanyahu's and Olmert's economic policies. To motivate its haredi electorate, it used the same Hassidic music and rallies with party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Polls show that this could be enough to keep its 11 seats, but to have a significant impact on the country's future, Shas needed to distance itself from the pack of medium-sized parties, such as the National Union-National Religious Party and Yisrael Beiteinu. Party chairman Eli Yishai upset Netanyahu with his attacks. Then he slammed Olmert's convergence plan. For a bankrupt party that needs government funding like oxygen, Yishai might have mistakenly talked his way out of any possible coalition. Smaller parties: Green Leaf, Herut, Hetz, Jewish National Front, Pensioners Party, Shinui, Tafnit and others The very fact that all these parties are still being grouped together is proof that none of them has succeeded in emerging as a serious candidate to pass the two percent voter threshold and make it into the Knesset. The latest polls have shown that the small party with the best chance of breaking the glass ceiling is the Pensioners Party, which is led by former intelligence agent Rafi Eitan, who was Jonathan Pollard's Israeli handler. All of these parties are counting on a very low turnout, which would lower the threshold. The parties have tried to use provocative campaign ads to attract attention. But so far the polls indicate that Shinui's ad of black-hatters dragging behind a secular voter and Tafnit's commercial with party chairman Uzi Dayan removing a piece of tape from his mouth haven't been enough to persuade the voters. United Arab List, Hadash and Balad The Arab parties have tried to convince their constituents not to vote for a Zionist party in a desperate attempt to ensure that all three of them pass the threshold. In the last election, Hadash was the only one of the three to win enough votes to have made it into the next Knesset. Hadash has focused its campaign on equality and discrimination, campaigning for both Arab and Jewish votes. Placing the Jewish Dov Khenin in the third slot instead of MK Ahmed Tibi was a risk for Hadash. The United Arab List has attracted headlines with provocative statements made by its new leader, Sheikh Ahmed Sarsour, and by Tibi, its new number two. Balad's ads have featured a camel. The results on Election Day will reveal whether any of the three parties ends up thirsty in the desert outside the Knesset. United Torah Judaism The haredi newspapers have been warning about complacency among ultra-Orthodox voters, but don't believe them. UTJ has always found a way to get its voters out of the yeshivas and to the ballot boxes. The party's constituency will continue to grow as long as the birthrate in the haredi sector stays as high as it is. UTJ's campaign ads, as usual, have appealed to voters from outside the sector. Its jingle was surprisingly the closest thing to a rock song any of the parties had to offer. Attracting non-Orthodox voters is the key to avoiding being the smallest non-Arab party in the Knesset. The flexibility of its rabbis will be tested when coalition negotiations begin. Yisrael Beiteinu Political pundits have rushed to declare this party the surprise of the election, saying it so often that the real surprise would be if the party fails to meet expectations. The polls have shown the party gradually rising from six seats to as many as 13 under the "nyet, nyet, da" campaign of strategists Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum. But Yisrael Ba'aliya's experience has proven that Russian-immigrant voters cannot be trusted. In an election where a record low turnout is expected, the turnout could be even lower among Russian immigrants, who are considered less idealistic than other sectors. It is to Yisrael Beiteinu's credit that Kadima has identified it as its main competition in the last days of the race. How party chairman Avigdor Lieberman handles this challenge will determine whether he is ready to seek his goals of heading the largest party on the Right and holding a senior cabinet portfolio.