THE ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL : At Ballot Box, Anguished Voters Weigh Hopes Against Fears


Duki Dror had already cast his ballot, marking his choices on the yellow and blue forms at the Aharon Katzir High School polling place in this breezy seaside city.

But he lingered Wednesday in the morning sunlight, agonizing about issues of peace and security, about the hope and fear that loomed, as always, over the Israeli elections.

"Here in this place, in the Middle East, we cannot take a chance and not succeed in it," said Dror, a documentary filmmaker. "Whatever we choose, whatever we do, we must succeed. It's very frightening to think what happens if we don't."

For Dror, minimizing the risks--of war, terrorism or violent conflict within Israel--meant a vote for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader who has promised to keep Israel on a path toward peace with the Palestinians and with neighboring Arab states.

For businessman Sadeh Hain, meanwhile, keeping the risk within acceptable limits had translated into a vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader known as "Bibi" who had indicated that he would slow, if not stop, the peace process.

"This 'peace' we have now is not a real peace," Hain said. "With Netanyahu, I vote for a peace which comes with security--real security."

Across this city and throughout the country Wednesday, Israelis anguished about their votes, exulted in their democracy and sought assurances from one another that their election decisions would not result in increased bloodshed here.

They headed to the polls in overwhelming numbers, and they turned out elsewhere to enjoy a bright, clear day free of the violence that many had feared.

Crowds of picnickers filled parks and vacation spots and gathered along the Tel Aviv shoreline. Even there, they engaged in the political discussions that are a national obsession.

Near the beachfront Planet Hollywood restaurant at midday, Alice Omero was still undecided about how to vote, especially in the race for prime minister.

"Never in my life I didn't know how to vote. But this time, neither of the prime minister candidates is attractive to me," said Omero, 34, a statistician. "I want peace--everyone wants peace--so maybe Peres is the easiest choice. But somehow it looks like he's too much involved with his wishes and his dreams and not with reality."

If Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated last year, were still alive, she said, her vote for Labor would be without question.

"Rabin had been in the wars; he knew what he was fighting about," she said.

She might yet vote for Netanyahu, she said. Or maybe cast a white ballot in the prime minister's race, indicating no choice.

Naor Agian, an electrician, had no such problem. He had already voted for Netanyahu and for the Likud Party's list for the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Agian, 29, said he hoped Netanyahu would slow what seemed to him a reckless rush toward peace since the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord.

"Somebody needs to slow down the pace," he said as he left the beach, moving quickly himself to catch up with his wife. "We need to stop and think about the changes, not to stop the process but to slow it down."

Outside a nearby polling place, Rachel and Zvi Scheinman said they traditionally vote Labor and had done so again this time, even though they tend not to trust Peres as much as they did Rabin.

The Scheinmans said they favor Labor's peace policies, which have yielded benefits for Israel.

"Israel is no longer isolated from the rest of the world," said Zvi Scheinman, 68. "I do not find it acceptable that we will regress back into a state of isolation from the rest of the world, which is what shall happen if the Likud comes into power."

Just south of Tel Aviv, in the ancient port city of Jaffa, Jewish and Arab Israelis voted alongside each other at the Urim vocational school.

Kamal Aghbariyeh, 19, said he was voting for the first time, for Peres for prime minister and for the Knesset list of Hadash, a left-wing party that includes Arabs.

Aghbariyeh, who said he was the first Arab to serve as chairman of the 40,000-member high school student association for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area, said Israel's Arab community had decided against an election boycott of Peres.

The action had been considered in response to Israel's punishing "Operation Grapes of Wrath" military offensive in southern Lebanon.

"Peres was the one to start the peace process," Aghbariyeh said. "It is not good and not wise for us to change leadership in the middle of such a complicated process." Most people decided they should stay with him."

In a tiny cafe around the corner, several customers looked up from their newspapers to listen to cafe owner Youssef abu Sarrari.

"Even with Netanyahu, we would have nothing to fear," he said. "Peres and Bibi, they both know that there will be no escaping returning the Arab lands. But it will take a shorter time with Peres."

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