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Who's Left To Vote For In Israel?

Tuesday is when Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, will go to the polls to elect their next Knesset. There are 33 parties in the contest of which the weirdest is the Holocaust Survivors and Grown-Up Green Leaf Party. This, then, is a vital democracy but more than a bit on the wild side. But, as the Hedda Hopper of Ha'aretz, Lily Galili, pointed out on Sunday, 33 parties there are but many of the people who will cast their ballots are still complaining that, "There's nobody to vote for." Aside from the pro-marijuana list, there are more than a few unusually enticing competitors: The Power of Money (against the banks) and The Power to Influence, the party of the disabled of which there are more than in other countries because it has been Israel's fate to lose limbs (as well as lives) in the unusual environment of terrorism and war.

In the last elections, it was the Pensioners' Party that surprised everybody by its strength, which pivoted it into the Cabinet. This year, alas, it is likely to be the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party, a neo-fascist list headed by a Russian immigrant and certified gangster, Avigdor Lieberman, who is the Israeli equivalent of Jorg Haider of Austria (now dead) and Jean-Marie LePen who, with Bridgitte Bardot, is a leader of National Front in France, who once overwhelmed the country's Socialist Party.

The problem with this hurricane of parties is that even the smallest ones have leverage, even to edge themselves into the cabinet. Lieberman is already in Olmert's government, but without portfolio, which means that maybe all he gets is a chauffeur-driven limo and the right to sit in on policy gatherings. Yisrael Beiteinu will collect more votes this time, and might--just might--decide who will be asked to form the government. When Haider was seated in the Vienna government, Israel made a big fuss and, as I remember, recalled its ambassador. Lieberman is no better than Haider and no worse, except that he is a Jew which makes him more repulsive, not only personally repulsive but politically repulsive.

If the last few days' polls are correct, Yisrael Beiteinu will end up being the third most popular list. This would mean that Labor (of which Ehud Barak is the leader), the party that, more or less, formed independent Israel, will be fourth in tomorrow's ranking. The decline of Labor reflects the decline of socialism all over Europe: having lost most of its own idealisms and voters finding what was left irrelevant and bureaucratically stultifying, Labor became the party of the haughty elites. Shimon Peres is the epitome of this type, foggy thinker, delusional speaker. Do you remember "the new Middle East?"

I myself half-suspect that Lieberman and his team of non-entities will do worse than the polls threaten. Arab-baiting has some practitioners in the country, and especially so after Hamas' relentless targeting of Israeli civilian life, a targeting that is still going on, after the cease-fire.

But Israel is not suicidal and it needs friends. Lieberman will leave it with none, and with no self-respect either.

For which party would I vote? Let me say I don't know for what exactly Kadima stands. It made a disaster of the 2006 Lebanon war, even though it seems to have deterred Hezbollah enough to stay out of the Gaza confrontation. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister during Lebanon and now, showed that she simply hadn't the strength to resist the entreaties of Condi Rice who pushed through a cease-fire that left Hezbollah free to smuggle weapons from Syria (and Iran) into the country with impunity. Condi also pushed for a cease-fire in Gaza without bothering to attend to the matter of the resupply of arms to Hamas, an issue that is still being negotiated, sort of. These twin stories are yet to be written, and they will show how credulous the hard-assed George Bush was when Ms. Rice tried her charms on him. In any case, Kadima is a party of opportunists and it's anybody's guess where it stands.

So we are left with Barak and Bibi.

My sentimental favorite is Barak, although he doesn't evoke much sentimentality among the electorate. I have no doubt that the Gaza engagement went as splendidly as it did because he was its commander. There are times when Israel needs a military man at the top, and this is one of those times. He is intellectually arrogant. But he is alert to the special responsibility of military people to their democratic obligations. I suppose that even he knows that Labor will not win. Still it is very likely to be at the core of a coalition. So my hope is that he will be defense minister again or foreign minister, both of which posts require a similar sort of strategic disposition, a hard-headed realism and pure cold courage.

Which brings me to Netanyahu. I know that in some circles the mere mention of Bibi's gets people to foam at the mouth. Even in America. These are folk with attitudinal politics. These particular foamers dislike Bibi because he doesn't endlessly utter those fatuous verities about the Palestinians being ready for peace. They are not. That does not mean that Israel should refrain from testing tactics and strategies that might induce more of them to understand that misery goes two-ways in the Middle East. But talking about vacating the territories without confronting the grim reality that from that very turf will come the missiles and rockets and trajectiles more powerful still aimed at, not Sderot or Ashkelon, but Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv all the way across the population belt of the Jewish state, is to play a much more perilous game than Russian roulette. It is voluntary suicide.

Yes, Netanyahu is a tough guy, like Barak, maybe less analytical but conceptually sharp and broad. He made concessions when concessions were needed, as in Hebron, and does not pretend that every piece of the West Bank or even most of it needs to be in Israel's control. But, if there are to be Palestinians in Israel (as there are and have been for 60 years), then there is every reason to believe that there can be Israelis in Palestine.

By the way, I count both Barak and Netanyahu as friends, and I believe that's how they see me. I've met Livni only once, on an El Al flight.