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A mess at the Knesset

Israel's body politic faces U.S.-style choice: lesser of two evils

Five election cycles ago inquiring minds wanted to know if Ronald Reagan used Grecian Formula. Israel's conservative candidate for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also stands accused of dying his hair.

In this case, however, the Likud Party leader is charged with using it to make his head more gray instead of less. The top post in Tel Aviv demands maturity over youthfulness, a picture of the contrast between U.S. presidential images and Israeli politics leading up to next week's national election.

Mr. Netanyahu, 46, will challenge 73-year-old incumbent Shimon Peres in a May 29 election for prime minister that is expected to be one of Israel's tightest. It is also the first time Israelis will cast two votes on the ballot: Normally parliamentary-style elections have given way to separate votes, one for prime minister and another for allocating seats in Israel's 120-seat legislative body, the Knesset.

The overwhelming issue for Israeli voters is security. They don't have to be regular riders on the No. 18 bus to worry about future attacks from terrorist groups angry with Mideast peace negotiations or Israel's attacks on Lebanon. Fear is widespread after a wave of suicide bombings in February and March killed 59-including 44 in two explosions on the No. 18 line through a Jerusalem neighborhood. It also moved Mr. Netanyahu slightly ahead of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the polls.

But last week opinion polls showed Mr. Peres regaining a slight lead, roughly 50 percent against Mr. Netanyahu's 45 percent, with a 3 percent margin of error. Those same polls, however, showed Mr. Peres's Labor Party winning 42 seats in the Knesset (it currently holds 44) and Likud winning 40.

Mr. Netanyahu promises to take a harder line in negotiations with Palestinians and Syria, in contrast to Mr. Peres, who is seen as the architect of Mideast peacemaking and even as a dreamer for his visions of Israeli-Arab co-existence. But clearly voters are uncertain whether the harsher rhetoric of Likud will work to ease the terrorist threat.

If the issues play far differently from American politics, there are similarities. Mr. Netanyahu, the son of a Cornell University professor who spent most of his teen-age years in the United States and studied at MIT, is credited with introducing sound-bites and carefully crafted photo-ops into Israeli politics. Now in his third marriage, Mr. Netanyahu also faces the character issue. In 1993 he went on television to announce he had committed adultery. He said opponents inside Likud threatened to blackmail him with a videotape of his adultery.

All of which has left many voters with little enthusiasm for either candidate, according to Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University. He told UPI many feel they are having to choose the lesser of two evils.

This points up the important role Russian immigrants play in this election. More than half a million have arrived since 1989. More Jews-about one in six Israelis-are from the former Soviet Union now than from anywhere else. Opinion polls show the Russians will vote for Mr. Peres over Mr. Netanyahu, 50 percent to 40 percent, with 10 percent undecided.

Life for the new immigrants has improved under the Labor Party, which ousted the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Unemployment for the Russians has dropped from 20 percent under Likud to 8 percent under the Labor government led by Mr. Peres since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin last November.

Some immigrants, however, have formed their own party to address outstanding bones of contention: improving education and housing and addressing problems of continued underemployment among highly trained engineers and scientists from Russia. The "Yisrael ba-Aliya" Party ("Israel of immigration" and "Israel on the way up" in Hebrew), formed by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, will compete with both Labor and Likud for seats in the Knesset. Mr. Sharansky hopes his fledgling effort will win enough votes to be courted for a place in a coalition government.

Mr. Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, says he would push either party to link a peace settlement with Syria and the Palestinians to commitments to human rights and democratization.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.