Tuesday, 21 March 2006

An Israeli political campaign tries to push voters to the right

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL -- At age 12, Bat-Ami Fisher won't be able to vote for several years, but with barely a week to go before Israel's general election the bubbly pre-teen has been spending her evenings knocking on doors and explaining her political credo to complete strangers.

Bat-Ami is one of thousands of Israelis participating in ''Zazim Yemina" (Moving to the Right), a grass-roots political campaign to persuade voters not to support the Kadima Party of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and elect a strong nationalist bloc to stop Olmert's plan to dismantle dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, has described the election as ''a national referendum on the Olmert-Kadima plan to give away land to Hamas for nothing in return." According to opinion polls, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the number one concern of Israeli voters.

One night last week, Bat-Ami was tramping the streets of Ramat Gan, a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv, with her parents and 5-year-old twin brothers. The Fishers live in Shiloh, a settlement halfway between Ramallah and Nablus in the heart of the West Bank. If Olmert implements his West Bank plan, Bat-Ami and her family will lose their home.

Despite her youth, Bat-Ami is already a seasoned political activist. She spent a week last summer camped out in protest at Israel's disengagement from Gaza. That failed to stop the pullout, but this time she hoped to be more successful. With more than 20 percent of Israeli voters still undecided, a last-minute swing could have a big impact.

''I think we can convince them and it will help the situation. I want the majority of people to be convinced that, even if they don't vote for the right, at least they won't vote for Kadima," she said.

''Kadima is full of people who want to throw people out of their homes. We don't want that," she said.

Armed with a computer printout targeting the homes of undecided right-wing voters, the Fishers visited two apartment blocks last Thursday, each housing six families. They explained their concern at Olmert's plans and were politely received. One family even invited them in to supper.

''We do not represent a particular party. Most people understand the issue. Just not Kadima," explained Rafi Fisher, Bat-Ami's father.

''The effect we're trying to produce is that in another two or three days Kadima's seats in the polls will start to fall and that will create a wave," he said.

After recording the results of their interviews, they returned the printouts to the campaign organizers and then began the hour-long drive back home to the West Bank. On this particular night, they found only four families at home, but the Fishers still felt it was worthwhile.

''There's nothing else to be done. This is the best thing we have. Others are calling by phone from the settlement. I'll also start making calls the minute I get home. It's like the butterfly effect, which can cause a tornado. I don't know if we're the butterflies, the tornado, or something in between. Who knows what will happen after we talk to them?" he said.

The Zazim Yemina organizers hope that Bat-Ami and her friends will reach 200,000 households before election day -- a huge campaign in a country with just over 5 million eligible voters.

''Every evening we have 1,000 people calling, and over 1,000 going out to visit -- and the numbers are rising," said Yaakov Sternberg, one of the campaign's national organizers.

They are relying on a quirk of the Israeli political system in which no party in Israel's history has ever won an outright majority, so the governments have been a series of coalitions.

The headline result of next week's election already appears to be a foregone conclusion. Olmert's Kadima Party is widely expected to come in first, winning 39 Knesset seats, according to the latest poll in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

In order to reach a majority of 61 Knesset seats, Kadima must team up with coalition partners that share Olmert's vision of a unilateral disengagement from the West Bank. First in line will be Labor, with a predicted 19 seats, and the left-wing Meretz with 4. But if the right does better than expected, that will force Kadima to look further afield.

In that case, Kadima could also look to Shas, the party representing ultra-orthodox Sephardic Jews, which looks set to win about 11 seats, and with them the ultra-orthodox party, Yahdut Hatorah, with six. That would give Kadima a safe majority, but the religious parties will demand a high price for their support, which could create internal tensions with the left-wing Meretz Party. And while Shas craves government office after three years in opposition, most of its members oppose a West Bank disengagement.

A further shift rightward could tilt the balance completely, leaving Olmert with a Pyrrhic victory in which Kadima is the largest party but is unable to form a government because of the combined strength of the right-wing and religious parties.

Amid this confusion, it's small wonder that the nightly television campaign broadcasts have left voters both amused and baffled. Thirty-one parties are competing in the elections, with at least 11 expected to win Knesset seats.

Kadima's broadcasts are dominated by statesmanlike images of the incumbent, Ehud Olmert. Also center stage are Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter, vowing to target Palestinian terrorists.

Netanyahu's Likud Party has been struggling. Its broadcasts have become increasingly negative, attacking Kadima as a rag-bag of ''leftists." Labor, which has failed to put its key issues of domestic policy -- health, education, welfare services, and pensions -- on the agenda, has also been attacking Kadima leaders, accusing them of corruption.

Top marks for impact go to the outspoken Alei Yarok (''Green Leaf") Party, campaigning for the environment and the legalization of cannabis. Its video looks like a traditional Jewish wedding until the two white-clad brides embrace in a passionate kiss.

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