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Israelis Vote As Hopes For Renewed Peace Process Remain Dim

The silhouette of an ultra-Orthodox Jew at a convention with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in Netanya, Israel, on January 13.

The silhouette of an ultra-Orthodox Jew at a convention with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in Netanya, Israel, on January 13.

The economy and Iran's disputed nuclear program were the key issues on the agenda as Israeli voters went to the polls on January 22.

After a meeting in Jerusalem last week with a delegation of U.S. senators, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that Iran's nuclear program is "the main mission" that Israel faces.

"Last night I met with five [U.S.] senators -- Democrats and Republican -- and I told them that the problem is not [Jewish settlement] construction in Ariel and the problem is not building in Jerusalem," Netanyahu said.

"The problem in the Middle East is Iran's attempt to build nuclear weapons, the chemical weapons in Syria, and the Islamic radicalism spreading in Africa, threatening to sweep the entire region."

Economic Concerns

Opinion polls showed, however, that the economy ranked even higher among voter concerns than Iran or the Palestinian question. The country's 2012 budget deficit was twice what had been projected, raising the likelihood of stern austerity measures in the near future.

Polls showed that Netanyahu was expected to emerge once again in the strongest position, but the balance among his coalition partners would likely be significantly shifted.

Netanyahu's center-right Likud-Beteinu faction was poised to take about 35 of the 120 Knesset seats that were at stake. The center-left Labor Party was polling second, with an estimated 16-18 seats.

The ultranationalist Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett was the surprise of the campaign. The charismatic, energetic Bennett, 40, has been described as the new "rock star" of Israeli politics. By targeting the youth vote and voters from the former Soviet Union, he raised his party's profile considerably.

Jewish Home seemed poised to quadruple the three seats it currently holds in the legislature, with most of its added support having been stripped away from Likud-Beteinu.

Bennett's rise could complicate the prospects for progress in relations with the Palestinians. He had been cheered on the campaign trail when telling supporters he would do everything he could to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state "within the Land of Israel."

If Jewish Home polls as well as predicted, Bennett could be an essential partner in Netanyahu's coalition, and he could insist on a high-profile cabinet post. That could present a serious roadblock to any movement to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Raphael Israeli, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that although Netanyahu said he supported the two-state solution with the Palestinians, a resurgent right could make negotiations on that basis nearly impossible.

Likewise, Saeb Erekat, a former chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, was also pessimistic that this week's elections would advance the peace process.

"The current government has chosen dictation rather than negotiation, settlements and not peace. So, any future coalition government after the elections that would continue the path of dictation and settlements would mean the destruction of the two-state solution," Erekat said.

"And we hope the Israeli people will make the choice for peace. But, having said that, we really wish to make peace with all Israelis and not with this party or that party in Israel."


In addition, faced with the daily concerns of a sputtering economy and the possibility of an existential conflict with Iran, Israeli voters have placed little emphasis on the seemingly intractable Palestinian question, said Ido Zelkovitz, a lecturer at the University of Haifa.

"The Israeli public is very, very tired from the Palestinian issue. If you look at public opinion, there is an understanding among Israelis that there is no other solution but the two-state solution. And I think the majority of Israelis want to get divorced from the Palestinians," Zelkovitz said.

"But, on the other hand, there is also a sense they are disappointed [with] the Palestinian partners and there is mistrust of Palestinians by and large. So that's the reason that the Palestinian issue is not taking a major place in the Israeli discourse."

Palestinians, likewise, were not looking to the Israeli elections with hope, said Daoud Kuttab, a U.S.-based journalism professor who observed the election campaign from the West Bank.

"There is a lot of apathy about the Israeli elections. Palestinians don't see really any difference in the different parties. In fact, many of the leading parties don't even have any peace platform; they don't even address the political issue," Kuttab said.

"They only address social and economic issues. And, of course, the leading parties are very right-wing, Zionist parties that [support] some form of the continuation of the occupation of Palestine."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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    Robert Coalson

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