Israelis Casting Ballots To Decide Tight Race

Israelis are voting Tuesday in an election that could shape Mideast peace negotiations. Opinion polls suggest a tight race between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But since Israel's war last month with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, support has surged for ultra-nationalist right-wing candidate Avigdor Lieberman.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today is Election Day in Israel, and the vote's expected to be close. Opinion polls show a tight race between the conservative Likud Party and the centrist Kadima, but since Israel's war in Gaza last month, support has surged for the ultra-right-wing candidate, Avigdor Lieberman. From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Capitalizing on security concerns, popularity for Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Homeland Party, has soared following the Gaza offensive. Lieberman has pledged to get even tougher with militants in Gaza. He supports expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and he has assailed Israeli Arabs who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population as a treacherous force eroding the Jewish state from within. His slogan - no loyalty, no citizenship - has resonated with many on the right. Ashqelon area farmer Schmel Hashby(ph)...

Mr. SCHMEL HASHBY (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Didn't you see during the Gaza war how they were all protesting against us, against the state? And they get social security from us. They get all these benefits. It's outrageous.

The strong showing for Lieberman threatens to draw votes away from Likud, which is exactly what the centrist Kadima Party is hoping for. Beverly Jamil(ph) runs an electronics store in Ashqelon, a city that was pounded by rockets during the Gaza war, what she calls weeks of hell. Jamil says she's voting for the ruling Kadima Party and says she rejects Lieberman's attempt to gain power by attacking Israeli Arabs.

Ms. BEVERLY JAMIL (Business Owner): He's a racist, and I'm not racist. I don't have a problem with the Palestinian people. I have a problem with Hamas. You've got to split the two things up. Hamas are terrorists and the Palestinian civilians are Palestinian civilians; to me it's two completely different kinds of people.

WESTERVELT: Opinion polls show that some 15 to 20 percent of the electorate is still undecided. Taken together, though, the rise of Avigdor Lieberman and sustained support for Likud make it likely the next Israel governing coalition will be dominated by the right wing.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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Israeli Ultranationalist Expected To Gain In Election

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Likud party leader i i

hide captionFormer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Likud party leader, applauds during an election campaign rally in Jerusalem on Saturday.

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Likud party leader

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Likud party leader, applauds during an election campaign rally in Jerusalem on Saturday.

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Israelis vote Tuesday in an election that polls suggest will result in a strong rightward tilt to the new government.

The race is very close between the conservative Likud party — headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —and the centrist Kadima party, led by Tzipi Livni. But the political kingmaker in any new coalition government is expected to be Avigdor Lieberman, an ultranationalist right-wing candidate who has built his campaign around assailing Israeli Arabs as disloyal.

The people of Gaza are still reeling from Israel's recent three-week military operation there, which killed hundreds of civilians and leveled whole neighborhoods. But many Israelis here in nearby Ashkelon say the offensive simply did not go far enough. Since Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire Jan. 18, Ashkelon has again echoed with sirens warning of incoming rocket fire from Gaza. One rocket landed downtown the other day, sending shudders through this coastal city of some 100,000.

Lieberman Gains Support

Shmuel Hasbee, a farmer and vendor here, says the only candidate with the chutzpah to topple Hamas is a onetime bar bouncer from the former Soviet Union, Lieberman.

"You don't need military experience; you need courage, and the Russians, they have the courage! You can see what they did to the Chechens," Hasbee says.

A Soviet-era emigre from Moldova, Lieberman's popularity has surged. Polls show his Israel Beiteinu party could get 15 to 20 seats in the Knesset. If the polls are accurate, Lieberman's party could relegate the once-dominant center-left Israeli Labor Party to fourth place — and make Lieberman's support key to any new coalition government.

A Declaration Of Loyalty

Lieberman has mixed an anti-establishment message with strong criticism of Arab Israeli citizens, who make up some 20 percent of the Israeli population. He paints Israeli Arabs as a disloyal fifth column undermining the Jewish state from within. He wants all Israelis to sign a loyalty oath pledging allegiance to the Jewish state and to commit to serve in the military or some other national service. Currently, Israeli Arabs are exempt from the army.

Lieberman's slogan, plastered on billboards and broadcast on TV ads across the nation, suggests that Arab Israelis are treacherous.

"No loyalty, no citizenship," an advertisement says. "Only Lieberman understands Arabic. We won't forget that when the military operation in Gaza started there were those among us who supported Hamas. Join us, sign the petition: No loyalty, no citizenship!"

Lieberman's message has resonated with a growing number of conservatives and boosted his popularity beyond his traditional base of Russian Jewish immigrants. Ashkelon hair salon owner Yoram Biton says he usually doesn't vote, but he will now — and for Lieberman.

"He represents the Jewish people, he represents the strongman that we've got the terror here — we live in the Middle East," Biton says. "You know, in the Middle East you must fight like in the Middle East."

Arabs In Israel Outraged

Lieberman's campaign has outraged Arabs in Israel, as well as many ultra-Orthodox Jews who detest Lieberman's support for civil marriages, which are not sanctioned by the rabbinate. The spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yossif, said over the weekend that a vote for Lieberman is "a vote for the devil" — and he slammed Russian immigrants for "selling pork and praying at churches."

Lieberman said the remarks just boosted his campaign and its outsider message.

To many Israeli Arab citizens, Lieberman's message is simply xenophobic. Eyda Tumma is a candidate for the Israeli parliament with Haddash, a predominantly Arab Israeli party. She calls Lieberman a dangerous demagogue.

"It can only be compared to other fascist parties all over the world when you do all your campaign on racism in such a vicious way against a population that is citizen of your country," she says. "Lieberman's discourse, although it is covered with an issue of citizenship, it is mainly racism."

In recent weeks, Israeli police opened a fraud and money-laundering investigation into a company owned by Lieberman's daughter. The candidate calls the probe political, and his backers believe the allegations — and the pre-election timing — may have only bolstered Lieberman's anti-establishment aura.

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