Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Downbeat poll reflects Israel mood

Barak election poster
Hopefuls offer differences in tone, but have few chances to forge a new path

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Jerusalem

Some Israeli voters seem to have taken to heart the old anarchists' saying "if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal".

Depending on which poll you look at, as much as 30% of the electorate is still in the undecided column. And those who have made up their minds don't seem that enthusiastic.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are hardly plastered with election posters. Party rallies are sparsely attended. Rival campaigns are failing to generate much fizz, even among their own supporters.

When the mood of the country is of being besieged, defeated, that helps the right. When the country is relaxed, that helps the left
Shlomo Avineri
Political science professor
One the face of it, this might seem surprising. Israel has, after all, just finished fighting a war, one that could reignite at any moment. But the voters do not believe this is an election that will change the country's destiny.

That is because for all the undoubted differences between right and left on the peace process, deep divisions on the Palestinian side mean no agreement is possible for the time being.

"Between Livni, Barak and Netanyahu, there would be a huge difference in image and tone," said Professor Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University, "but not much difference in the peace process because the Palestinians can't come up with a coherent political structure."


Of course, a large slice of apathetic and uncommitted voters is not unique to Israeli democracy. It is something that afflicts the United States and Europe, too.

Netanyahu election poster
The country is in a bad mood, which could help right-wing candidates
And psephologists here say that that the headline figure for the large number of Israeli floating voters may be slightly deceptive.

"None of the above" still commands a significant following but is not - as first appears - the biggest party in this election.

In the last poll before the election on Tuesday - in the newspaper Haaretz - 29% of the survey said they had still not chosen which party to support. But the pollsters said the real rate was closer to 15%.

Here, the nuts and bolts of how polling is done becomes crucial to the result. People are telephoned at home, many no doubt just after sitting down to a nice dinner.

So some give the traditional answer to pollsters (and double-glazing salesmen) who make impertinent calls in the evening - and are duly recorded as undecided.

But even 15% is still equivalent to 18 seats in the Knesset, potentially enough to determine who forms the next Israeli government.

Interestingly, most of the movement by floating voters is likely to be within the right and left blocs rather than between them.

This means that the right-wing bloc, ahead in the polls now, will probably hang on to its lead. Israel is indeed moving to the right.

"When the mood of the country is of being besieged, defeated, that helps the right. When the country is relaxed, that helps the left," said Prof Avineri.

"The country is in a bad mood. After months and years of rockets from Gaza and after an inconclusive end of the Gaza operation, there's a feeling of siege."


Another leading Israeli political scientist, Professor Shmuel Sandler, disagrees that the identity of the next Israeli leader is largely a matter of tone and style.

Tzipi Livni
Kadima promised peace and failed, but in Tzipi Livni has a new untried leader
"There is a difference between Likud and Kadima," he said. "Kadima represents some negotiations. A Likud victory means that everything has to start from the beginning."

Prof Sandler said voters were apathetic because the last government delivered little after raising huge expectations.

"There was a big disappointment with the previous government. Kadima promised peace and instead we had two armed conflicts and no movement on the Palestinian side."

Paradoxically, a widespread feeling of ennui may actually benefit the party currently in power. That is because Tzipi Livni has not yet been prime minister, whereas Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu both held that office.

Kadima's campaign slogan - "Tzipi Livni, a different kind of prime minister" - deliberately plays on this.

"There are two candidates who have already been prime ministers, and we've seen the result," Meir Sheetrit, interior minister and head of Kadima's election effort told the Israeli Press. "The public wants something else."

"Vote for me, I'm not the other guy," is not exactly a rousing, uplifting campaign cry. But it seems to reflect the mood of the country and of this election.

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