Israeli Election Arrives Amid Political Turmoil

Israelis go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament. The center-right Kadima party leads the polls, with Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, vowing to continue unilateral pullouts from the West Bank.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up cowboy chic. But first, Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new parliament, the country's first vote since Israeli's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer.

The new center-right Kadima party is ahead in the polls. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon founded the party late last year before he suffered a massive stroke that's left him in a coma. Kadima's new leader, Ehud Olmert, is vowing to press ahead with more unilateral pullouts from the West Bank Territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

At a street rally near Tel Aviv, Kadima supporter Sara Miller says she backs the party's push for more go-it-alone pullouts from the West Bank, but the textile designer's unsure Ehud Olmert can get the job done.

Ms. SARA MILLER (Kadima Supporter): I don't see in Kadima the leader. He's not a leader. The way that they are going is right, but as a leader, I'm not so sure.

WESTERVELT: It's a common refrain. Many Kadima supporters feel a little cheated. Drawn to the new center-right party when it was founded with fanfare by the charismatic Ariel Sharon, they're now stuck with its charismatically challenged deputy and former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert.

Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEV (Analyst, Shalem Center): What happened to Kadima is that the country's most popular politician was replaced by one of the country's least popular politicians.

WESTERVELT: Analyst Yossi Klein Halev is a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center. He says it's extraordinary Kadima has managed to maintain a steady lead in the polls despite Sharon's absence and an emphasis on the cold pragmatism of unilateralism.

Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEV (Author and Analyst, Israel): And it attests to a deep hunger in the Israeli electorate to get beyond the left and the right and to finally create a strong center which is pragmatic on territory and hard line on security.

WESTERVELT: Olmert has told Israeli newspapers he plans to keep the big West Bank settlement blocks in most of East Jerusalem, but eventually pull out unilaterally from the rest of the settlements and define Israel's final borders on its own. The rival Likud Party, led by former Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, charges that Kadima's plans for territorial concessions are reckless, especially with Hamas elected in the Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu this week warned voters that Kadima will form a left-wing coalition with Labor and the Meretz Party if it wins. That will lead, he says, to quote "the big surrender plan that only the Likud can prevent."

Kadima's closest rival in the polls, the Labor Party, has tried to energize its base with the Clinton-esque, it's the economy stupid campaign. In a working class neighborhood in West Jerusalem, Labor's new leader, former union boss Amir Peretz, is buttonholed by a middle-aged woman who says she struggles on state assistance. Peretz talks about raising the minimum wage and expanding pension and health benefits for workers and the elderly.

Mr. AMIR PERETZ (Labor Party Leader, Israel): (Through Translator) First thing I'll do is reform training programs for the unemployed and find alternative plans which will bring back the honor and livelihood to the working class.

WESTERVELT: Despite the huge issues in play, many Israelis see the race as lifeless. Polls show the possibility of the lowest voter turnout in Israel in 20 years. Iran Sheffleman(ph), director of Young Labor Jerusalem, says he's especially dismayed that so many young Israeli voters seem apathetic.

Mr. IRAN SHEFFLEMAN (Director, Young Labor Jerusalem): There's a total disbelief in the political system. I think it's a huge danger for Israeli democracy. They just don't care.

WESTERVELT: And in sharp contrast to previous elections, Palestinians are showing a profound disinterest in the Israeli vote this time around. Palestinian analyst and activist, Dr. Jad Isak, says Arabs seek continued Israeli settlement expansions, incursions and checkpoints on the ground and conclude it matters little who wins on the other side of the roadblock.

Dr. JAD ISAK (Analyst, Palestinian): The core conflict will remain. Israel can still continue with its unilateral moves, and the Palestinians will deal with the new realities that are on the ground, but we will never accept it.

WESTERVELT: Israeli candidates say with the terrorist-labeled Hamas now in power, there is no credible Palestinian partner left to negotiate with. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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