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ISRAEL: Elections next week, many still undecided

February 2, 2009 |  8:24 am

Israelis are an opinionated bunch, particular on political issues. But only nine days away from elections, about 20% of the voters remain undecided -- about 1 million people.Electiontrio_2

In the "old days," there was little room for doubt. Two large parties, the ancestors of today's Labor and Likud, dominated the political map, and at least half the seats of the Knesset's 120. Most voted traditionally for the one or the other, and the winner formed a coalition with a number of smaller parties. Left was left, right was right, and loyalties were staunch and unwavering.

In 1951, Labor reigned supreme, controlling 45 seats, the second-strongest party held a distant 20. In 1977, Labor lost its hegemony of three decades; Likud won 43 seats, Labor 32. The 1996 elections were held after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and reflected the beginning of the left/right confusion, giving Likud 34 seats to Labor's 32.

But in 2005, Ariel Sharon formed the centrist party Kadima that wedged its way between the two traditional goal-posts of left and right and stirred up the mix.

The system hasn't entirely recovered from the "big bang" that split Israel's political atom. In the last elections, the large parties controlled exactly half the seats in parliament -- only now they were split not two ways but three, defining mainstream right, left and center.

Bibi Disaffection and disappointment compound political confusion. Voter turnout has been steadily declining from 86.9% in 1949 to the all-time low of 63.5% in last general elections. Even the once-abundant political bumper stickers are rapidly disappearing from the scene (although this might also be because nearly 40% of Israel's private cars belong to leasing companies.)

Consider the Democracy Index, a yearly gauge researched by the Israeli Democracy Institution. Among other things, the 2008 survey found that 90% of Israelis believe that the political system is tainted by corruption, and 60% believe integrity is a politician's most important quality.

Every prime minister in the last 15 years has been investigated for corruption, including the outgoing Ehud Olmert, whose multiple investigations ultimately resulted in early elections. But none of them had ever been indicted either, and these investigations ate away at public support in the political sphere  as well as the legal system.

So what's new? Bibi Netanyahu has already been prime minister once, Ehud Barak too. Even Tzipi Livni, theLivni promise of  "a prime minister of a different kind" (as per her campaign slogan), has been in politics for a decade. The system constantly recycles candidates and parties and sometimes appears to be randomly reshuffling numbers until getting the right combination to crack the code and break into the safe.

Israelis are increasingly punishing the big parties, sometimes cutting off their nose to spite their own face. Results are often surprising. Last election, a Pensioners' party tapped into the floater-voters and won seven seats, out of the blue. There are many choices for those reluctant to give their voice to the mainstream parties, with platforms anywhere from legalizing pot through fighting organized crime to dismantling the banks' monopoly. Recently, the qualifying threshold for entering parliament was raised from 1% to  2% of the valid vote. Last election, this came to 62,742 votes. Nineteen parties didn't make it in.

Compass_3  To help the undecided, the Israeli Democracy Institution offers the 2009 Israel Election Compass, an interactive Web-based program to help voters sharpen their positions on issues and candidates and chart their options. The tool was used successfully in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections as well as the 2006 elections in Holland. "Although Israel's current electoral campaign is extremely short, we have high hopes for the software and its impact on voter turnout," said IDI senior fellow, professor Asher Arian. "We also expect that the Compass will induce Israel's politicians to speak out on the issues."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos: Campaign billboards of the three candidates. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / For The Times

Bottom: The party leaders section of the Election Compass, a joint venture to the IDI and Ynet website.

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