JERUSALEM — Since Israelis held their last major election in 2006, they've fought two much-criticized wars, seen the economy tank and watched in alarm as Iran became a regional power with nuclear ambitions.
Thus there's no shortage of issues as voters head to the polls Tuesday to select a new prime minister. The only thing lacking is much regard for the candidates.
"I feel like there's no best choice," says Shaina Hirsch, 22, a college student. "Every single one of the candidates is not going to do anything new, is not going to change anything."
It doesn't help that two of the contenders for prime minister are men who once held the job, and none too successfully: Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawk who temporarily retired from politics in 1999 after a series of scandals; and Ehud Barak, the dovish ex-general whose failed peace talks with Yasser Arafat in 2000 led to the second Palestinian uprising and a wave of suicide bombings.
In Israel's parliamentary form of government, the political party that wins the most seats in the Knesset gets to select the prime minister. Recent polls show Netanyahu's Likud Party ahead, though its lead has been cut by a late surge in support for the most controversial candidate in the race — a former Moldavian nightclub bouncer named Avigdor Lieberman.
Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel at 20 and now heads the Israel Beitenu Party, sees little chance that Jews and Arabs will ever live together peacefully. He has proposed a separation that would transfer some Arab towns in Israel to the Palestinian Authority and revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who won't swear allegiance to the state of Israel.
In a democratic nation also determined to protect its "Jewishness" as the region's Arab population grows, the Lieberman plan outrages some voters and intrigues others.
"He reminds me of dark times — Haider, Le Pen and people like that from Europe," says store clerk Yossi Komar, referring to far-right, ultranationalist politicians Joerg Haider of Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen of France.
Yaakov Kessler, who immigrated to Israel from New York 13 years ago, thinks Lieberman's plan has merit after so many failed attempts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"He's been given a bad rap in the media and by the establishment. He's been portrayed as a thug, and that's unjust," Kessler says. "I think he's a shrewd man and his standpoint is a proper one for this time."
Although Lieberman's Israel Beitenu Party won't win enough Knesset seats to make him prime minister, its rise in the polls may knock the main right-wing candidate, Netanyahu, out of the running. Afraid too many voters will choose Lieberman's party and other smaller ones over Likud, Netanyahu has promised that Lieberman will be "an important minister in my cabinet."
Netanyahu, whom many Israelis regard as arrogant and opportunistic, is a controversial figure whose views could put him at odds with Israel's closest ally — the United States.
While both countries want to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Netanyahu seems more willing to take military action. And in defiance of U.S. policy, he wants to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, though most of the world regards them as a major impediment to peace with the Palestinians.
One striking feature of this Israeli election is that there are almost no campaign posters or signs. The few that are to be found are mostly of Netanyahu, who also ran in 2006.
"We're cheap," jokes store clerk Samy Gatan. "All this garbage is left over from three years ago."
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]