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Israeli Elections: Wake Me When It's Over

Reporter, Hadas Ragolsky, voting at her local polling station in Tel Aviv

Hadas Ragolsky voting at her local polling station in Tel Aviv.

It was 9 o'clock in the morning, and my polling station in the middle of Tel Aviv was almost deserted. A few older people showed up to vote, but the voting committee seemed to be virtually unemployed. The coffee shops were starting to fill up with people, but who knows how many of them will actually vote. "People are indifferent, disappointed; they don't want to vote," said Mira Amdursky, an early voter.

Only in Israel can a campaign that started with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calling for an early election, then leaving his own party to create a new centrist party (Kadima), and then a few weeks later being hospitalized in a deep coma be called "boring." But boring it was.

Even after Ehud Olmert, who used to be 32nd in line to head the Likud Party, became acting prime minister, even while the most respected Israeli veteran, Shimon Peres, left his longtime political home in the Labor Party to become Kadima's number two, and even while the militant group Hamas scored an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections, the Israeli public remained indifferent, and the four-month-long campaign failed to ignite.

The polls hardly budged during that time, and Sharon's creation, Kadima, will take this election in its sleep.

It wasn't always like this. Elections here used to be like a festival. Politicians would tear up the roads from north to south, speaking in public squares, clubs and homes, and in front of even the smallest groups of people. Political billboards would dominate every intersection; people would hang campaign posters from their balconies; political slogans would be posted everywhere. Not this time.

But it's not just indifference. Six months ago, before and during the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza Strip, thousands of Israelis demonstrated for and against the pullout. The two sides distributed colored ribbons -- orange meant you were against the pullout; blue, that you were for it. Israelis covered their cars with the ribbons, sporting colors just like fans from rival sports teams. But come the elections, and the parties couldn't even find enough volunteers to stand at intersections to distribute their stickers. Instead, they had to pay teenagers to do it for them.

Kadmia's slogan- a picture of Ehud Olmert with the words continuing forwards in Sharon's way

Kadima's slogan with a picture of Ehud Olmert reads, "Continuing forward in Sharon's way."

So what changed?

Israelis have gone to the polls four times in the past 10 years, instead of once every four years. Each government formed following those elections was reconstructed again and again and never stayed a full term. Parties switched between coalition and opposition. More then 10 criminal investigations were opened against Knesset members, among them a series of investigations against the current prime minister, Sharon, and his sons -- one of them a Knesset member himself. Many Israelis are simply embarrassed.

"They are all corrupt," Rachel Shaul, a 67-year-old retiree told me. "They find the money for the election, but they don't have money for hungry children, the old and the sick people."

That statement repeated itself over and over during the campaign.
"The Israeli politicians are corrupt," said Maya Cohen, a 28-year-old student from Tel Aviv. "I don't feel there is anyone in particular that I wish to vote for."

Many Israelis share Cohen's disenchantment with the current candidates. Israelis admired Ariel Sharon, and his absence has left a leadership hole for many voters.

Without big stadium gatherings and rallies, the parties focused on campaigning in schools. Israeli high schools go through inner-school elections as part of civics classes. Senior candidates stormed the schools, giving staff members stickers, T-shirts and campaign rhetoric to hand out to students.

"Schools replaced the public squares," said Ron Levental, the leader of the Shinoy Party, while talking to students at the Blich High School in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. "There is no other place where you can present your opinions."

Third member of the Labor Party, Avishay Braverman with students at the Blich highschool

The Labor Party's Avishay Braverman with students at the Blich high school on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

All the big parties were concerned about the turnout among young people. Only 44 percent of Israelis between the ages of 18 and 32 said they planned to vote, according to a poll paid for by "One Voice" -- a grassroots movement promoting peace. Thirty-nine percent of those polled said they didn't think their voice would influence the results. And early indicators show this election will register the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Jewish state.

"I don't have anyone to vote for," said Yonit Agami, a 21-year-old second-time voter. "I want to vote for people without interests, maybe Ale Yarok (a party that promotes legalization of light drugs). The United States is dictating what our leaders do anyway, so it doesn't really matter who I vote for," she added.

Another explanation for this sleepy election came recently in a radio interview with advertising businessman Arie Rotenberg. "We used to have two camps," said Rotenberg. "By declaring your camp you also declared which side you oppose. Now we have three big parties and not really any sides."

Traditionally, the Israeli right wing represented the hardliners when it came to the Palestinians, and the left wing supported peace efforts. Now, Kadima, as a centrist party, is against negotiating with the Palestinians and in favor of a unilateral withdrawal. Both the left-leaning Labor Party and the right-wing Likud Party reject the concept of unilateral withdrawals and support negotiations before any other pullouts.

Confused? So are the Israelis.

No one can actually differentiate among the parties, especially when it comes to Kadima, which has been dubbed "the supermarket party." There are few well-known right-wing candidates, few well-known left-wing candidates, and almost 20 complete unknowns about to occupy Knesset seats.

Kadima advisors liked this ambiguity; it kept them high in the polls for a long time. For weeks in the run-up, Kadima scored between 39 and 41 percent in the polls. Nothing seemed to change it. Channel 10, the television channel I work for, issued a public invitation to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take part in a televised debate with his opponents Amir Peretz, the head of the Labor Party, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, but Olmert refused.

For a long time Olmert kept quiet in order to fit the new image his advisors were trying to create for him -- the image of a serious and responsible statesman. Then, with 18 days left before the election and with Kadima suddenly starting to drop in the polls, the old Olmert emerged. "The question of who will win this election was already decided," he said in a rare political speech. "We will be the party in power, I promise you," he told his activists. For a moment it looked as if Olmert -- the arrogant, cynical politician we knew -- was back in town. Pundits started to write about his possible defeat.

That didn't last long.

The slips at the polling station

The slips at the polling station.

Two weeks before the election, Olmert performed two brilliant and perhaps brave steps that probably stopped the Kadima slide. First, he presented his agenda for the West Bank -- now known as the "Convergence Plan." (Sharon's pullout plan was called the "Disengagement Plan." Word laundering is almost an official sport in Israel.) According to Olmert's plan, the settlers will converge into large settlement blocs, and the rest of the settlements will be evacuated.

Israelis were pleased to hear this. After all, it seems the majority of people here are just waiting for the Israeli occupation to end.

"All our problems, the violence in the streets, the schools, the poor education, the poverty, they are all put aside waiting for the occupation to end; so finally there will be enough time and energy to solve them," said Yaniv Ben Hagay Levi, a 36-year-old settler who was evacuated from Gaza Strip.

Olmert's second step was to authorize a military action to capture the murderers of former Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

Israeli forces raided the Jericho Prison in the Palestinian territories and captured all prisoners, including six of the most wanted. Now Olmert could deflect plans to paint him as weak and indecisive on security issues.

Once Olmert made this move, even the rival parties started to plan the new coalition with Olmert's Kadima Party. They talked about whom they would share the government table with and whom they wished to see in the opposition.

Of course, they will change their minds in the coming weeks.

Hadas Ragolsky is a senior producer at the Israeli national television station, Channel 10. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.