Decision Day for Israel: `Tribal Politics' Divide as Nation Heads for Polls

Article excerpt

Israel has been drifting away from the Zionist dream of a unified Jewish nation and will be even more fragmented after today's election as "tribal politics" continue to splinter the traditionally feisty electorate.

More and more, Israelis are not voting for the mainstream Likud or Labor parties but for ethnic and religious political groupings.

So the winner of today's ballot - either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Labor challenger Ehud Barak - will preside over a gaggle of special interest parties in the Knesset, or parliament.

More than 80 percent of the 4.3 million eligible voters in the nation of 6 million are expected to turn out for today's election, in which they will vote separately for prime minister and for parties seeking seats in parliament.

Three minor candidates for prime minister dropped out over the last two days, leaving a head-to-head contest between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak in which the challenger was expected to prevail.

Pollster Hanoch Smith, revising figures from a survey he took on Thursday and Saturday, told Reuters news agency he expected Mr. Barak to receive 54 percent of the vote compared with 46 percent for Mr. Netanyahu.

Former defense chief Yitzhak Mordechai, a distant third in the polls, threw his support to Mr. Barak yesterday. Ultranationalist Benjamin Begin withdrew in an apparent attempt at counterbalance but pointedly did not endorse the prime minister. Azmi Bishara, representing Israeli Arabs, dropped out Saturday so as not to draw votes from Mr. Barak.

While the prime ministerial race has become clearer, there is little clarity to battle for control of the Knesset, where 32 parties are contesting 120 seats. These include single-issue parties advocating policies like legal marijuana or casinos that stand little chance of winning even one seat.

From among the winners, the next prime minister will have to pull together a coalition controlling at least 61 Knesset seats and win agreement on how to deal with vital issues such as the return of occupied Arab land, peace with Syria, sharing of water, security, trade, education, religion and human rights.

This will be no easy task in a fractionalized Knesset where parties owe their loyalty to widely differing ethnic and religious groups.

RUSSIANS HOLD KEY TO POWER

Growing "tribalism" has made Israel something far different from the unified nation that Zionist founder Theodore Herzl and the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, set out to build earlier this century.

Today, nearly 1 million Russian Jews who emigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 hold the key to power in Israel and possibly to stability in the volatile Middle East - a tinderbox of passions that have fired disputes over land.

Other factions are secular Jews, Sephardic Jews, religious Jews and Israeli Arabs.

"It is chaos. There is a total splintering of the political system," said an Israeli diplomat. "Now people are speaking of the tribal vote."

Herzl, Ben-Gurion and the other pioneers of the Zionist ideal had a far different vision.

They saw streams of Jews traveling toward their ancient homeland in British-held Palestine from Morocco and Istanbul, from Russia, India and Iran, from Argentina, France, England and America, from Yemen and Ethiopia.

After the Nazi slaughter of 6 million European Jews during World War II, the streams included hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors from Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

These immigrants to the first Jewish homeland since the Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D. willingly abandoned the diaspora, where they had existed as a timid minority.

But more than 51 years after Israel's birth as a nation, the subcultures that merged to create a vibrant, democratic society are finding they have not merged so closely together after all. …