Israel Heads Hopelessly Into Election

Times Staff Writer

When a cold Monday night settled over Israel, street-corner advocates abandoned the curbs. A few straggling commuters slumped at bus stops.

The final hours before their national election were draining away, but residents of this young democracy barely seemed to notice.

"I think we've lost hope," said Eitan Cegla, 26, a soldier who paced alone over the cold floors of the downtown bus station. "We don't see the solution. I don't see anyone who can help us."

Cegla grew up in Israel and moved to Paraguay as a teenager, but he found he couldn't stay away -- he came back to the Middle East nearly two years ago to serve in the military.

He was on his way to his base late Monday with a sandwich in one hand and an M-16 over his shoulder.

"Israel didn't used to be like this -- it used to be more relaxed," he said. "But now people think peace is impossible."

Like many Israelis, Cegla regarded today's election as an affair of little suspense. There was virtually no question that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be reelected, that the agonizing battle with the Palestinians would keep up and that the economy would worsen. Worn by combat and slowed by poverty, a melancholy Israel went to the polls for the fifth time in a decade.

Terror attack warnings scraped over the airwaves, and a skittish government put 30,000 police officers and soldiers on duty throughout the country. Traffic wheezed slowly through roadblocks and checkpoints, and border crossings from the Palestinian territories were locked down for three days.

"This is the most peculiar election we've ever had," said Hemi Shalev, a political analyst who writes for the Israeli newspaper Maariv. Israelis have "never been so indifferent to their election campaign," he said.

"They feel fate is not in their hands, and so they go to the polls with a sense of indifference."

The final stretch of the race was so humdrum that Sharon dropped out of sight early, withdrawing into his office Monday afternoon. In the polls, his ruling Likud party was projected to win between 30 and 33 of the 120 parliament seats.

The next closest contender was Labor, the traditionally leftist party, which was poised to collect 18 to 19 seats. While his party's spokesman gave a press conference that stopped just short of predicting defeat, leader Amram Mitzna, Haifa's mayor, phoned undecided voters and begged them to head for the polls.

The surprise of the campaign was the secular Shinui, a black-horse party that lured a jaded public with its anti-corruption, anti-religious rhetoric. Shinui grew so popular that it threatened to do better than Labor.

Then there were the 24 remaining parties, ranging from the pro-marijuana to the ultra-Orthodox to the Arab.

Just how all these factions will be organized into a coalition government remains to be seen. Mitzna has announced that his foundering party would refuse to join a coalition with Sharon. And the ruling party has another worry: that Sharon would be forced to depend more heavily than ever on the far right.

"The real story is the day after," Yediot Aharonot analyst Shimon Shiffer said. "How will Sharon try to form a government? It's an open game after tomorrow."

In the hours before the polls opened, Israel's smaller parties continued to forage halfheartedly for undecided votes. Shortly before midnight, three young women in a pickup truck cruised the empty streets of Tel Aviv to hang posters for Am Ehad, a trade union party.

On the evening news, Iraq replaced domestic politics at the top of the hour, and commentators observed that just 300 foreign journalists planned to cover the elections.

Last time Israel went to the polls, 1,000 international reporters poured in to chronicle the vote.

"What we're seeing right now is the effect of two years of living in constant fear of terror," Shalev said. "The people have become desperate, and that leads to apathy."

More than 2,800 people have lost their lives since the Palestinian uprising began 28 months ago, three-quarters of them Palestinian, and the violence continued today when three Palestinians were killed under disputed circumstances in Gaza City.

Witnesses said an Israeli helicopter apparently fired a missile at a house, destroying it. But the Israeli military said a bomb being assembled by militants at the location went off prematurely.



Israeli elections

Under the Israeli system, parties vie for Knesset (parliament) seats rather than direct votes for a prime minister. A look at the country and today's election:

Key statistics

Population: 6.6 million, including 5.2 million Jews and 1.2 million Arabs

Avg. annual per capita income: $16,000

Inflation: 6.5% in 2002

Unemployment: 10.4%



Main seat allocations after 1999 election:

Labor Party: 26

Likud: 19

Shas (religious): 17

Meretz (dovish Labor ally): 10

NOTE: Some legislators have changed affiliation since being elected; currently, 65 out of 120 support Sharon's right-wing/religious coalition.


Election facts

Electorate: About 4.8 million, including 200,000 voters in West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements

Votes needed to get into the 120-seat Knesset:

About 50,000, or 1.5% of total

Eligibility to vote: Any citizen over 18, Jewish, Arab or other. No absentee ballot.

Polls: Roughly 8,000 polling stations. Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.


Sources: Associated Press; Jerusalem Post

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