JERUSALEM- The tour buses let off passengers only a few steps from the plaza facing the famed Western (Wailing) Wall, a supporting wall that survived when victorious Romans in 70 a.d. stepped over Israelite corpses to raze the Temple. The buses are convenient, but if you're traveling solo you might enter the Old City through a western gate, weave your way generally southeastward through narrow alleys, and emerge on a plaza in front of a school as a dozen 10-year-old boys rush out for recess and start playing dodgeball all around you.
Looking for a safe place to stand, you might climb a few steps to another plaza occupied only by a man wearing a black hat and black suit with white fringes hanging down from his waist. He holds a cigarette in his right hand and a package of chips in his left, and turns out to be a teacher in the Orthodox Jewish school. He's not watching his young charges as they throw a big rubber ball as hard as they can, with head-hunting not against the rules. He's gazing east, and there, in simple elegance, stands the Wall with its massive white stones.
With Israel facing a crucial national election March 28, the political game here is all-against-all dodgeball. Israelis cast their ballots for a party, not individual candidates, and with 31 parties in the game, candidates are throwing hard at dodging opponents. Parties win seats in the 120-member legislature, the Knesset, based on their percentage of the national vote, and the electoral list includes both a powerful "Torah Observant" group, Shas, that promises its voters "a place in heaven," and the Green Leaf party, which promises marijuana for all (and is rising in popularity).
With all that action, it's surprising that newspapers have been running stories with headlines such as "Apathy characterizes electioneering," "Broken promises, cynical voters," and "Torah sages try to rally blasé voters." Some Israelis, like the teacher, are looking at the Wall, and others at actress Sharon Stone, who last week caused a near-riot when she visited the Wall, flashing peace signs at worshippers who ran to see her. But most Israelis, according to pundits and pollsters, now treat the political leaders as if they are children playing a game.
To Americans who expect Jerusalemites to be engaged in fierce political discussion because enemies sworn to kill them are a 10- to 20-minute drive north or south in the Palestinian strongholds of Ramallah and Hebron, the lack of election intensity is surprising. But if you walked around central Jerusalem last week from Me'a She'arim Street in the north where the ultra-Orthodox congregate, to the art-filmhouse Cinematheque on Mount Zion in the south, you'd see hardly any political signs or stickers. You might walk from the Knesset building in the west to the Mount of Olives in the east, and you'd hardly know that the end of a campaign was near.
As a tribute to WORLD founder Joel Belz's periodic Wal-Mart polls, I surveyed Israelis visiting the Wall, asking whether they were excited about the impending election or any of the candidates. The responses were almost always no, with explanations such as "they're all the same," "corrupt," "untrustworthy," "playing at offering peace" (when there is no peace). This poll was especially unscientific because, done in English, it oversampled the well-educated-but scientific surveys have shown similar apathy and alienation, with only 20 percent of Israelis paying attention to political advertising.
Pundits expect that voter turnout, which for 55 years until 2003 had never gone below 75 percent, might drop to 60 percent this year. Hebrew University government professor Avi Diskin last week described Israelis as "fed up with political parties; alienated, disappointed; people don't believe politicians anymore." Lior Chorev, senior advisor to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israelis are "looking for quiet" and hoping that another Wall-the electronic security fence (built with U.S. aid) that in part resembles a wall with enormous concrete barriers dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories-"will be high enough so that we won't have to see them [Palestinians] any longer."
That comment may explain the political exhaustion. Many American evangelicals view Israelis as heroes who ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country's struggle against Islamic terrorism. In reality, many are like Americans who since 9/11 have grown tired of terror alerts-except that the Israelis have faced threats not just for 54 months but for 58 years, ever since their country gained its independence from British control in 1948.
Amid terrorism fatigue, many Israelis "are looking for a political messiah," says Paul Wright of Jerusalem University College. In this election, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon present in body only following a stroke suffered earlier this year, they're not finding one. Mr. Sharon was the Andrew Jackson of Israeli politics: Just as a teenaged Jackson fought in the American Revolution and in the 1820s was a living link to George Washington, so Mr. Sharon fought in the desperate wars at Israel's dawn. Both generals were crusty, larger-than-life leaders succeeded by pint-sized career politicians, Martin van Buren and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Mr. Olmert, 60, is a lawyer who in 1973 became the youngest Knesset member ever: He spent 20 years in the legislature before becoming mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years and then Mr. Sharon's sidekick and successor. Opponents characterize him as a political chameleon who smokes big cigars, wears expensive suits and shoes, and-according to the Jerusalem Post-"oozes political experience and savvy."
Rumors of scandal have floated around Mr. Olmert for years, but no one has laid a glove on him, and he's the favorite to become prime minister for the next four years as head of the new party, Kadima ("forward" in Hebrew), which Mr. Sharon founded.
In his campaign appearances Mr. Olmert mentions his predecessor early and often the way John Kerry mentioned his Vietnam war service-Oh by the way, did you know that I am the handpicked successor?-as he speaks in front of Goliath-sized photos of Mr. Sharon. His key message, which may win his party about 30 seats, is that he will complete construction of the electronic wall, bending it around several large Jewish settlements, which Israel will unilaterally annex. He will then turn over most of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Israel's army will preserve the capacity to attack Hamas and other opponents-as one Kadima official put it, the West Bank terror infrastructure will be like a lawn that must be periodically mowed-but Israel will become, in Mr. Olmert's words, "a country that is fun to live in."
The only major party leader regularly attacking that vision is Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, 56, who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and heads the second major party, Likud. He sharply attacks "hope that is based on illusion" and leaders who "engage in falsifying reality, lulling the people to sleep and acting like an ostrich." He calls Kadima the party of "PR gloss" and says, "We have to disabuse the Palestinians of the fantasy that Hamas puts before their faces-that it is a matter of time before the superior Muslim will overcomes the inferior Jewish will and we will be driven out."
Likud, with its emphasis on lower taxes, free trade, privatization of some governmental functions, and standing "strong against Hamas," is the Israeli equivalent of the Republican Party (crucially minus the GOP's Christian influence), and it generally has as negative a press as its American counterpart. Mr. Netanyahu has campaigned by going to high places overlooking Israel's major airport and the Jerusalem--Tel Aviv highway, proclaiming to the winds that terrorists from behind the electronic wall could lob missiles-but those charges aren't getting much press attention.
Instead, Mr. Netanyahu himself has become the issue. Polls show Likud getting at most 20 seats, partly because many Israelis criticize it and Mr. Netanyahu for being "Americanized"-meaning slick and "Mammon-worshipping."
Likud's leader has become the favorite dodgeball target, with throws accompanied by the yell, "Send Netanyahu back to the United States." (He went to high school in Pennsylvania, where his father was a history professor, received bachelor's and master's degrees at MIT, and later was an Israeli diplomat in Washington and New York.)
The Israeli attitude toward the United States is ambivalent. Gratitude for American money is everywhere apparent, from a plaque at the Yeshurun Central Synagogue-"Central air conditioning made possible through the generosity of several Americans"-to a soup kitchen overlooking the Western Wall that acknowledges funding by a New York family. Israelis last week celebrated Purim (from the book of Esther) as they do every year with a parade of floats, one of which depicted a Hamas leader as Haman, George W. Bush as Mordecai, and Condoleezza Rice as Queen Esther. At the same time, my Wall Poll revealed that some Israelis see America as dominated by two disliked groups, Christians and capitalists.
The third major party, Labor, a member of the Socialist International, plays on the worry that Israel has lost "the spirit of the kibbutz," those entrepreneurial communal farms where everyone pooled income. How big government would restore compassionate communalism is not clear, but party leader Amir Peretz, 54, scorns talk of the rich voluntarily helping the poor: "A society that provides the basic needs of all its citizens leaves no room for 'soup kitchens' and luxurious charity events."
Labor, like the now-extinct "Scoop Jackson Democrats" in the United States, once favored strong military action, but Mr. Peretz now avoids defense issues and concentrates on demands for free education, free medical care, and government-funded, low-cost mortgages. Labor is unlikely to win more than 20 seats, in part because Mr. Peretz came to power by leading the Histadrut, a federation of trade unions roughly analogous to the AFL-CIO, but more politically potent: Many Israelis criticize the major strikes he called in 2003 and 2004 that temporarily crippled the Israeli economy.
With none of the parties gaining huge traction, some of the campaigning sounds like teenagers hurling insults at each other. Labor's Eran Hermoni: "Whoever votes for Olmert will not be able to fix what he did even with a morning-after pill." Kadima member Haim Ramon: "If Labor members do not want to get blamed for corruption, they should not walk in the sun with butter on their heads."
If the polls are accurate and the three major parties, all secular, win 70 seats among them, what happens to the other 50, and who gets to be prime minister? An Israeli campaign does not end on election day, because no political party has ever won a majority of Knesset seats; after the election comes the courting of minor parties, many of them Orthodox, by the leading major. This is why the teacher-in-black can gaze at the Western Wall, knowing that his vote will count: In return for supporting the leading secular party, the Orthodox parties often get their way on issues crucial to them.
Those issues range from control of the Western Wall-it's divided, by Orthodox command, into separate men's and women's sections, with the men's section three times the size of the women's-to government financing of religious schools, day care, and social services (but denial of funds to the small number of Israeli Christians). For some, the agenda also includes denial of visas to Messianic Jews and acquiescence in harassment of them by the ultra-Orthodox.
Faith-based initiatives have a different meaning in Israel than in the United States, but the biggest act of faith may come on election day, if Israelis believe that their new electronic wall will allow them to forget about the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, at the beautiful old Wall, exuberant Orthodox men sometimes break out into chants of "Moshiach! Moshiach! Moshiach!"-the Hebrew word meaning "Messiah," for whom they are waiting.