Israeli Elections Fails to Gain Traction with Public

In Israel's upcoming election, the stakes are high. The incoming Hamas government does not recognize Israel. In Iran, a hostile government is pursuing nuclear technology. And Israel's prime minister is still in a coma. But most Israeli voters are showing little interest in the campaign.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And as Linda mentioned, Israelis elect a new parliament in just over a week. Their voting comes just after the election victory by Hamas among Palestinians, but polls show many Israeli voters are uninterested in this campaign and uninspired by the candidates.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

In many ways, the stakes in Israel's upcoming election couldn't be higher. The incoming Hamas government's charter calls for Israel's destruction. Iran, whose leader has said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map, is doggedly pursuing nuclear technology. Israel's Prime Minister remains in a coma, and the recent Israeli storming of a West Bank jail has let loose a new wave of Palestinian anger.

But ask Israelis about the campaign, and you hear words like, boring, visionless, and uninspiring. It seems many Israeli voters, such as electrical engineer, Shalom Cohen(ph), are tuning out.

Mr. SHALOM COHEN (Electrical engineer, Israel): (Through translator) People are indifferent. They're tired of the corruption, and people just don't care that much anymore.

WESTERVELT: Cohen, from the town of Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, says he'll likely vote Kadima. That's the center-right party Prime Minister Ariel Sharon founded before a massive stroke disabled him in January. But Cohen is hardly excited about Kadima, or Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert.

Neither is Johr Shektar(ph). The 30-something financial advisor lives with his wife and two kids in a middle class Tel Aviv suburb. They're exactly the kind of voters Kadima hopes go their way on Election Day.

Mr. JOHR SHEKTAR (Resident, Tel Aviv): They went a long time where we didn't think big ones, you know, like Begin, like (unintelligible), like...

WESTERVELT: Inspiring, charismatic leaders.

Mr. SHEKTAR: ...even like Sharon, yes, take a new way, you know, and succeeding in doing it.

WESTERVELT: Ehud Olmert has proposed something of a new way. The former Jerusalem mayor and Sharon deputy has outlined plans for more Sharon-like unilateral withdrawals from the Palestinian territories. Olmert has pledged to hold on to the big Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but civilian withdrawals from smaller settlement areas, Olmert says, are needed to define final borders and secure Israel. Shektar isn't at all sure Olmert is the man to carry it out, but he says it's time to try to trade land for the hope of security.

Mr. SHEKTAR: If you could be without it, of course, it would be the best solution, but it can't. The situation is very complicated, and I don't see any good choice without...

WESTERVELT: Without another disengagement, Shektar says in Hebrew, like the withdrawal from Gaza last summer. Likud, the right-wing party Sharon broke with to form Kadima, is warning against Olmert's call for more unilateral pull-outs. On the campaign trail, Likud's leader Benjamin Netanyahu tries to convince voters that Sharon's Gaza pull-out led to the rise and stunning electoral win by the militant Islamists of Hamas.

Mr. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Leader of Likud Party, Former Prime Minister of Israel): They interpreted our withdrawal as weakness, and they say, well, if terror gets Israel to vacate territory with no agreement, with no guarantees, with nothing in return, then terror works, so let's have more terror.

WESTERVELT: But several opinion polls show Netanyahu's warnings aren't winning Likud many new voters. For months, Likud has remained stalled in third place well behind Kadima, and still trailing the Labor Party headed by its new leader, Amir Peretz.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of Mr. Amir Peretz speaking in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: In T.V. ads, Peretz, a former trade union leader, touts his humble origins as a working-class Jew born in Morocco. His campaign has highlighted proposed solutions to Israel's economic and social problems, along with peace plans that aren't too far from Kadima's. But Peretz's efforts to instill new life into the Labor Party and to target immigrant voters have yielded limited results. On paper, 49-year-old Yevgini Katz(ph) would seem a prime candidate to support labor, but the electrician who moved to Israel from Russia nine years ago says he's undecided and turned off.

Mr. YEVGINI KATZ (Israeli Voter): (Foreign language spoken) None of the parties in Israel are doing anything for the people. Economy, also insecurity, and also anti-Semitism in the world--they haven't done anything, and it doesn't look like they will.

WESTERVELT: Katz says, in fact, he's leaning towards staying home on election day. Several recent polls show that about 30 percent of Israeli voters are likely to do the same. That would prove to be the lowest voter turnout in an Israeli election in two decades. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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