Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Sunday, 8 February 2009

Israel's election without fanfare

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

Israeli politicians are winding down what have been, at best, lacklustre election campaigns.

Man cycles past election hoarding
The main candidates have been trying to sound tough

Israeli voters are not impressed. This is an election focused more on personality than politics.

As candidates for prime minister, Israelis have complained they have a choice between two failed former premiers - Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - or an unknown, many say, uninspiring candidate in Tzipi Livni.

Little separates the three in terms of policies that matter to the Israeli electorate. Following Israel's recent bloody operation in Gaza, health, education and the economy barely feature, even though Israel, like many other countries, is heading into a recession.

Once again in an Israeli election, security and defence dominate pretty much all discourse - this time with a marked hardening of attitudes across the board.

The three main players, from the centre-left, centre-right and centre, have been vying with one another to sound tough.

'Intolerable realities'

Paul and Caroline Frosch and their three children live in Rananaa, geographically at Israel's centre. They describe their home as liberal, even left-leaning.

There are security guards outside the schools, there are security guards outside the nurseries, there are security guards outside the shops
Caroline Frosch
Before moving to Israel in the early 90's, Caroline volunteered for the UK's Labour Party but, she and her husband say, the realities of living in Israel surrounded, they feel, by threatening neighbours in Gaza, Lebanon and Iran, mean they find themselves supporting tough military action they'd rather avoid.

"You balance between, on the one hand, this private bubble where you live in a Mediterranean climate and everything seems happy and nice and, on the other hand, a collective sense of imminent threat," Paul tells me.

Paul Frosch
Paul Frosch: "Perpetually at risk"

"There's a constant sense of the fact that at any stage this reality that we live in could be disturbed. You're perpetually at risk and that becomes intolerable after a while. Intolerable. I worry what will have to be done in the future to protect me, to protect my family, my friends. My country."

Caroline nods vehemently. "There are security guards outside the schools, there are security guards outside the nurseries, there are security guards outside the shops who check you when you go in.

"I don't think I've necessarily become more right-wing, I think possibly you become more realistic. Being realistic means that in certain situations you have to counter force with force."

Both Caroline and Paul supported Israel's recent assault on Gaza - to stop years of rockets attacks on Israeli civilians, they say.

Resurgent far-right

The operation was launched by a centre-left coalition government, close to election time. It's widely assumed the hope was that a perceived victory would help turn around the parties' fortunes on election day after polls predicted a win for the centre-right.

Ultra-Orthodox children walk past a poster for Avigdor Lieberman
Avigdor Lieberman's party could become the third largest

In the end, a far-right, ultra-nationalist party made the biggest gains after Israel's pull-out from Gaza. Some polls predict Yisrael Beytenu may become Israel's third largest party after these elections, overtaking Labour, identified by many Israelis with the founding of their state.

The party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is under long-term police investigation for money-laundering and fraud. He's denied all charges but his often anti-Arab and inflammatory rhetoric has led opponents to liken him to Mussolini and to Stalin.

In the last election he won the loyalty vote of fellow Israelis from the former Soviet Union but now his popularity has spread.

Danny Ayalon is a former Israeli ambassador to the US. He's the party's number three. He told me Israelis have had enough of political correctness.

"'Israelis are looking for clear answers and straight talk. It's been enough beating around the bush. They need to have security. They need to have stability. They were told they would get peace in exchange for land.

"The bitter experience that we've had, when we give land like in Gaza or Lebanon or in the West Bank, is that, in return, we get terror. I think people are quite upset with that."

Of course, not all Israelis are moving to the right in their politics, although most seem to be in their attitudes to peace.

'Dirty word'

The bigger left-wing parties were always Zionist, always nationalist but whereas Israelis used to define themselves as doves or hawks when it came to talking peace or going to war, the doves appear to be dying out. Most Israelis believe they face a daily existential threat.

Hamas member walks through ruins in Gaza City
The Gaza operation was launched only weeks ahead of the Israeli vote

Ephraim Inbar is a professor at the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

"I think to a great extent peace has become a dirty word. Peace is something associated with a bad dream. We tried. It was not successful.

"People who say we want peace or say we see a beautiful future ahead of us, are ridiculed these days. [The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Israeli President Shimon] Peres became re-integrated and accepted again in Israeli society when he stopped proclaiming fantasies like that."

Still, the reason the outside world takes a keen interest in the parliamentary election of such a small country like Israel, is because of the idea of peace - an end to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tzipi Livni from centrist Kadima and Ehud Barak from theoretically centre-left Labour both promote the idea of the two-state solution - where Israel and an independent Palestinian homeland would exist side by side.

Likud's Bibi Netanyahu, tipped by pollsters to be Israel's next prime minister, prefers to speak of an "economic" solution to the Palestinian question, suggesting a preference for financial and practical agreements between Israelis and Palestinians rather than a deal over land.

Still undecided

All three have supported building new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The settlements are illegal under international law. The World Bank, the UN, the EU and the US have all cited them as a major obstacle to ever reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Even now, so close to elections, up to 20% of Israelis still say they don't know who to vote for.

Adi Margolus, 18, believes only Israel's army can keep her country safe. She starts her military service at around the same time as the election. I met her in a Jerusalem park for fallen soldiers. Some of those killed recently in Gaza are buried here.

"I think it's important for every teenager, who's my age, to serve in the army. I think the army comes in to protect us because every day someone can attack us - Syria, Lebanon - they can attack us whenever they want to. That's how I see it.

"I hope one day there will be peace but I don't believe it will come soon. Serving in the army is something we must do. My children, they will also have to do it, I think."

This is an election without fanfare. Adi told me it's basically about holding onto what Israel has got - keeping it a Jewish state, managing, not solving, the conflict with Israel's neighbours.

Few Israelis would disagree - on the left or right of the political spectrum.

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