Cover Story

One election, two walls

On March 28, voters will decide if they believe Israel can become "a country that is fun to live in"

Issue: "Broken promises," March 25, 2006

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).

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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.

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