If you arrive in Israel today, you wouldn’t know that in few days people here are going to vote to decide the nation’s future. Except for the huge billboards with portraits of the candidates promising the moon, and the commercials — a royal waste of money, which few people will watch — there is nothing but indifference.
Why this apathy in a country so politicised, with historically high levels of voting? How come 25 per cent of Israelis are undecided, and maybe more will not vote?
One explanation might be that the recent war has just exhausted people. There is only so much energy you can allocate to fighting a war, worrying about the shaky economy and — last but not least — making sure you survive the Israeli driving. Elections now just seem a bit too much.
Another reason might be the poverty of alternatives. Two of the leading candidates — Netanyahu and Barak — have been Prime Minister before, not necessarily with shining records.
Actually, Barak was kicked out of office after 20 months, the shortest term of any Prime Minister ever; and Netanyahu, while leading in the polls, is still looked upon with suspicion, with many people waiting to see when the flaws in his character will re-emerge.
With all the talk about the short memory of Israelis, they are definitely not fools.
Tzipi Livni, another leading candidate, still leaves many voters wondering if she is the right woman for the job (I, for one, think she is). She failed to form a government when she had the chance and the credit for the recent war went mainly to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Barak, not to her.
Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu, frightens both Arabs and Jews in Israel. The former, because he threatens to strip them of their citizenship if they don’t declare their loyalty to the Jewish state; and the latter, because he promises nothing but more wars. So much for the people who want to lead us to the future.
There might be yet another reason for the lack of interest in the elections: the demise of political parties. In the 1980s, Labour and Likud had more than 40 Knesset members each, with distinct ideologies.
If you voted Labour, chances were good that you were a social democrat, favouring diplomatic solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If, on the other hand, you voted Likud, you were a liberal on the social issues and a hardliner on the security side.
Today, however, the big parties are almost devoid of ideology and no more than naked machines to gain political power. Kadima is a prime example — a group of people who hardly have anything in common except their wish to remain in power.
If there is no major difference between the leading parties, and anyone in power will yield in the same way to reality or to a tough Obama push on the Middle East, why bother to vote?
Which brings me to Lieberman again.
His amazing success in the polls (in some he gets more than Barak) proves the point: people here are sick of vagueness and are therefore willing to vote for someone who consistently tells them his truth, loud and clear.
The last reason why people do not care is the most important one. These elections are not about the real issue.
Before the Gaza War, there was a feeling that we were ready to give social issues a higher priority. However, once the tanks started rolling, we were back on the good old “security first” agenda.
Yet the real question facing Israel is whether or not a Jewish and democratic state can survive, and for how long.
In order to remain both Jewish and democratic, Israel will have to pull out of most of the West Bank and work tirelessly for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Anything else will doom Israel, in the long run, either to become an apartheid state or to lose its Jewish identity.
In these elections, this strategic dilemma is barely on the table.
So Israelis, with their healthy political instincts, probably feel that, in a way, the polls are actually a waste of time. In the elections after next, however, we will see a reshuffling of the political scene, with new parties fearlessly addressing the main issue.
Then, I promise you, things before election day will look very different.