JERUSALEM — With breathtaking suddenness, the Palestinian revolt that dominated the national consciousness for more than two months has been relegated to background noise as Israelis turn their attention to a national election campaign that promises to be filled with drama and invective.
Since Tuesday, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak unexpectedly agreed to dissolve parliament and go to elections two years earlier than scheduled, newspapers, television and casual conversations in coffee shops have been dominated by politics. The violence in the Palestinian territories has slipped to the inside pages of papers and brief summaries on the nightly news.
To be sure, the Palestinian uprising helped bring about these elections, expected sometime in May. It will remain a backdrop to them and could still shape their outcome, experts agree. Political pundits have gone so far as to say that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat holds Barak's future in his hands. If Arafat can reduce the violence in the territories, and Barak can conclude a peace agreement with him before the elections, the prime minister's chances of being returned to office will be immeasurably improved.
Conversely, as has been the case in previous elections, a particularly horrific terrorist attack or upsurge in the violence could seal Barak's political fate and ensure that the next government will be right-wing.
"It is true that for the last few days, everything is about politics," said pollster Rafi Smith, who has measured Israelis' opinions and moods for years. "But we all know that if there is a serious terrorist event, the security situation will seize the headlines again. People haven't forgotten what is going on in the territories, they have just refocused for a while."
Still, even as they grumble that this is no time for elections--that politicians should be concentrating on security issues and not on saving their own hides--Israelis have plunged into the campaign with gusto. Tense, worried conversations about the matsav--the situation--have been replaced by heated political debates.
Israelis are caught up in fevered speculation about the intentions of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely expected to try to wrest control of the opposition Likud Party from former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and then face off against Barak for a second time. They wait to see whether Barak will confront a challenge to his leadership from within his own party, and whether he will secure an agreement with Arafat before the elections.
"We are talking about people who have been trained to switch quickly from one channel to another, one story to another, for years," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist and longtime observer of Israeli political culture. The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip makes Israelis anxious and tense, Ezrahi said. By comparison, the prospect of a brutal election campaign that seems likely to pit Barak against Netanyahu seems almost soothing. "It actually reduces anxiety and fear."
Michal Maimoni, owner of a baby shop in Jerusalem's Malcha Mall, said she is fed up with the nation's politicians but addicted to its politics.
"I can't stand it, I don't know who to vote for," she said. "We've already seen what Netanyahu can do, which is nothing. Barak didn't do a lot. So, who? Sharon? If it's Sharon, we'll go to war."
As Maimoni spoke, two friends crowded around and started arguing with her about who might make the best prime minister and what he should do about the Palestinians. The heated exchange continued as a reporter retreated from the shop.
"This is a very political country," Smith said. "Everybody here is half a prime minister." Routinely, Smith said, 90% of Israelis who are in the country at the time of national elections vote. Even an election that looks as if it might well be a rerun of the last one--when Barak ran against Netanyahu--will bring Israelis out in droves, he said.
"They may be dissatisfied with politicians, but when it comes to politics, you will find at every second table at every mall people talking about politics. That is the kind of country we are. Israelis abroad fly back to vote, and Israelis who are here schedule trips so that they will be here on election day. It is a split society, and people know that small changes in the vote can change the government," he said.
And unlike in the United States, where a social issue, such as health care, or a symbolic issue, such as flag burning, might emerge in national campaigns, issues here are always existential, according to Ezrahi.
"People are engaged actively in politics not because they like it but because here, politics are closely connected to the strongest anxieties of the people, both individually and collectively," he said. "This is a country where people wake up in the morning and listen to the news for a daily situation report, and what is said affects their mood for the day."