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Israelis Go to Vote Amid Deep Unease

Cars go by Tel Aviv’s landmark Azrieli Towers skyscraper complex. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Tel Aviv, as its residents will proudly tell you, is “the city that never sleeps.” Founded by Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, it mushroomed after Israel’s founding 40 years later. With skyscrapers looming over the Mediterranean, a frenetic financial pace, boutiques, bars and non-stop nightlife, Tel Aviv today is a symbol of what Israel aspired to be — a capital to rival any European one, the capital of a Jewish state, smack in the heart of the Holy Land.

But in the days leading up to this week’s election, I’m struck by the sense of disaffection — even gloominess — among residents here. If the polls are right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win re-election with a plurality of the votes. But they’re being cast without much sense of excitement or promise.

Start-up company employee Tomer Tepper-Lupu voted for Netanyahu in Ra’nana north of Tel Aviv Tuesday morning, but said he didn’t have high hopes for where it would lead. “Unfortunately, no,” he said. “We’ll have to wait another four years for that. Maybe we’ll have better choices.”

“I’m voting for Bibi because there’s no one else,” said a merchant at the downtown Dizengoff Center mall. “But where are we going? I don’t think he knows.”

Photo of volunteer Racheli Menuchin by Sebastian Rich for the PBS NewsHour

Racheli Menuchin, a volunteer for TV talk show host-turned-candidate Yair Lapid, told me a surprising number of people she’d contacted sounded dispirited. “Some are disillusioned,” she said at a Lapid rally Saturday night. “They say it doesn’t matter, there will be no change.” Lapid hoped to draw the disaffected his way with his message of change.

The reason voters most cite for their grumpiness is the economy. Though Israel isn’t in a recession, growth has slowed and Tel Aviv housing and food prices are sky high.

But there’s something deeper eating away at voters, too. More than at any time since my first reporting trip here in 1991, as Newsweek’s diplomatic correspondent after the first Gulf War, I sense an uneasiness among Israelis, a growing feeling of isolation and alienation from their neighbors. It’s never been a friendly neighborhood for Israel to be sure, but after the Arab Spring, it’s become a more unstable and unpredictable one.

A quick swing around Israel’s borders shows why. The radical group Hezbollah has been top dog in Lebanon for some time. But in the past two years, Egypt has elected the anti-Zionist Muslim Brotherhood to power. Jordan, the only other Arab country to make peace with Israel, is struggling to ward off its own Arab Spring.

On the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority that joined Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords is losing ground to Israeli foe Hamas in Gaza. And as Syria disintegrates, so does Israeli confidence in the security of its chemical weapons.

“What happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said. “It could spill over to Lebanon and Jordan. That would be a problem for Israel.”

Margaret Warner interviews Naftali Bennett of the Bayit Yehudi party. Photo by PBS NewsHour.

In the face of all this, Netanyahu has presented himself as the only reliable skipper in rocky seas. None of his closest rivals — Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich on the left, religious right nationalist Naftali Bennett nor the mildly leftist Lapid — have the credentials to challenge him on that score. That means they don’t meet the bar for many voters.

Asked to cite the most important issue to him, aspiring shop owner Elan Ohayon said, “Security, security, security. And on security, I believe in Bibi.”

Netanyahu’s tough talk about a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear program does make some voters nervous. “It shouldn’t be brought up openly in this way,” said Ziv Tal, a businessman and part-time sports coach in Tel Aviv. “If we use the military option, we should do it behind closed doors, the way we did before.”

But even liberals like graphic designer Michal Tamir concede most Israelis share a sense of threat. Israelis have “a collective memory,” she said, “that people can go into gas chambers. … So I always expect the worst.”

Also troubling voters in this election year — a widening rift between more secular Israelis and the nationalist religious right. Secular Jews resent the ultra-Orthodox’s exemption from military service and government spending on the settlements. Lapid, the other prominent new face in the race, is running to change both. But with Bennett and his Jewish Home party surging, the religious right feels on a roll, hoping for a close third behind Labor and an invitation to join Netanyahu’s government. Bennett wants to upend 20 years of near-consensus on how to deal with the Palestinians. Forget negotiating with them to find a two-state solution, Bennett says; Israel should annex the parts of the West Bank it wants, and grant limited Palestinian autonomy in the rest.

With Arab birthrates outpacing Israelis’, following Bennett’s course could force an ugly choice on Israelis down the road — accept a state of Israel with Jews no longer the majority, or impose indefinite occupation over the Palestinians.

“Israel faces existential questions from the inside,” said a longtime student of the country’s history and society here. “Not necessarily, will it exist? But will it exist as Israel has known itself — a liberal democracy, a Jewish and democratic state, seeking peace with its neighbors even when that’s difficult, and with some degree of consensus and cohesion in the society.”

Those are big questions with no good answers, questions that aren’t being directly addressed, but could be exacerbated, by the outcome of this election. If this election is about the future, it’s hard to find an Israeli who sees this as a very hopeful one.

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