Where is the incentive to vote?

The question on the lips of most Israelis these days is: "Who are you voting for?" Unlike previous elections, the answer is not a foregone conclusion. Many are asking, in fact, whether it's worthwhile marking the holiday which traditionally accompanies elections in Israel with a vote at all. What, they are asking, are we voting for?

Economically, the country is, on the whole, stable. Yet there is a great deal of resentment that the reforms promised in response to the massive demonstrations of a year or so ago have not materialised. "The people demand justice!" the banners declared. What they have received is unfulfilled promises or watered-down laws. True, there is now free education from the age of three, which saves many people a tidy sum. But it doesn't begin to touch the problem of housing or the unequal distribution of social obligations and benefits (like going to the army or having a job), or of myriad other issues brought up last summer from the tents of Tel Aviv.

Politically, things look rather bleak. Israel has rarely been so isolated on the international stage, even among its traditional friends. The vote for the Palestinians at the United Nations may be only "symbolic", as the Foreign Ministry would have it, but this makes it no less potent. Having failed to settle on solutions of its own, Israel is likely to be pressured into accepting decisions not of its own making, or becoming more isolated.

At the centre of this is the Prime Minister. When Benjamin Netanyahu phoned former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak before his death last month, Lipkin-Shahak urged Bibi to "have the strength, wisdom and courage to make the right decisions".

Many feel that Israel has reached a dead end

In fact, Netanyahu seems to be in competition with such great nay-sayers as the late Yitzhak Shamir. He has so far failed to carry out the many reforms he has promised. His ability to talk himself out of any commitment is his main achievement. In his speeches (and speaking to the nation is one area where he has spectacularly failed), he shows a great deal of passion. But if he has courage, it is the courage of other people's convictions, the more extreme the better.

The extremist views of his two major partners -Yisrael Beitenu and the Charedi parties - balance each other out and do nothing to disturb Netanyahu's world-view, thus allowing him to keep his ship of state stable.

What of his opponents - Tzipi Livni, or Yair Lapid? At the moment, they seem disparate and badly organised, certainly not prepared to take on the prime minister. Their message is indistinct. Worse, the leader of the Labour Party, Shelly Yachimovich, announced that Labour "is not a leftist party and never was," a strange position to take when your party is running on a left-leaning ticket.

Only the rejuvenated Jewish Home Party under Naftali Bennett's leadership has caused Netanyahu to erupt in anger. The furore was over Bennett's comments implying that soldiers would not be wrong to disobey orders over evacuating settlements.

The remark was taken out of context. Since Bennett was himself a respected army commander (he is now in hi-tech), it is unlikely that he would tell soldiers to disobey the hierarchy. He was, he says, just stating his view. But the incident tells us Netanyahu's real fear - here is someone espousing apparently the same views as his own but with the backing of religious conviction.

The immediate effect of the furore was an increase in support for Jewish Home. What with this, and the allegations dogging Bibi's political partner Avigdor Lieberman, things look less than certain for the Prime Minister.

It is no surprise that many people - perhaps more than ever - feel that Israel has reached a dead end, that its leaders are running around like the proverbial headless chicken, and that there is no point in voting if the same bankrupt policies are to be pursued in the future. So the biggest challenge to Israel's democratic system is to see whether people can be bothered to vote at all.

Mordechai Beck is a freelance writer

    Last updated: 11:45am, January 11 2013