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Israeli Leftists Caught Between Despair and a Hard-Liner in Vote

February 04, 2001|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Tuvia Metzer is the classic pro-peace Israeli leftist. Voting for the hard-line right wing is positively unthinkable for him. Yet when he deposits a ballot in Tuesday's election for incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak, it will be only after weeks of agonizing inner debate.

"I will hold my heart and put 'Barak,' " Metzer says.

Two days before Israel's national election, many of Barak's core supporters are facing the same dilemma. Battered by psychological trauma and a loss of faith triggered by Israel's political and military crises, they cannot countenance a government under hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon--but Barak inspires little enthusiasm.

Polls consistently give an overwhelming lead to Sharon, the 72-year-old former army general who has said he will drive a much harder bargain in any negotiations with the Palestinians.

Metzer thought about not voting; he thought about casting a blank protest ballot. "In the end, I decided I had no choice," the 53-year-old bank manager said Saturday night as he braved wind and rain to march in a peace rally. "But I am afraid my vote and that of my family will not be enough."

The Jerusalem rally, staged by Peace Now, commemorated the 18th anniversary of the death of Emil Grenzweig, a peace activist killed when a right-wing militant hurled a bomb into a demonstration protesting Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an operation masterminded by Sharon.

"I know a lot of people are disappointed with Barak, but it's not like there's an alternative," said 19-year-old Adam Rubins, who will be voting for the first time Tuesday.

Rubins, who is working as a youth counselor for a year before he performs his mandatory military service, joined the torch-lighted peace march in a last-ditch effort to muster support for Barak. But everyone present knew that it would be an uphill battle.

Elsewhere Saturday, clashes between Israelis and Palestinians were reported in the West Bank city of Hebron and the Gaza Strip. The Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat vowed to step up its uprising after the Israeli election, regardless of who wins.

Among the many Israelis whose support Barak has lost, perhaps the most conflicted are voters from the left and the so-called peace camp--roughly half the country. Like Metzer, they enthusiastically endorsed Barak in his 1999 landslide election, but 20 months of political disarray and, more recently, frightening bloodshed have left them with many questions and doubts.

Their ambivalence underscores a wider national despair. Many are disillusioned not only with Barak but also with the entire process of negotiation and peace-seeking enshrined in the landmark 1993 Oslo accords, which have governed Israeli-Palestinian relations for so many years. The violence of the last four months has brought Palestinian hatred for Israelis into sharp focus, gutted efforts at coexistence and seemed to render years of work futile.

Metzer and others trace their disappointment with Barak almost to the beginning of his tenure. Barak failed, they say, to build the kind of political network he needed to shore up what would become difficult peace talks requiring significant Israeli concessions. He waited too long to enter into negotiations with Arafat, selfishly ignored the advice of party elders, disregarded the feelings of adversaries, then bungled Israel's response to the current uprising.

Although the polls give Sharon a margin of victory of up to 21 points, there remains an unusually large percentage of undecideds. Pollsters say many who have been refusing to back Barak in surveys will on Tuesday "return home" and vote for him.

That is not likely to change the anticipated outcome, but it may influence the nature of Sharon's mandate and his need to negotiate with the opposition.

Traditionally, turnout in Israeli elections is very high. Some analysts predict that this election--Israel's first for a prime minister only--will draw fewer than usual voters.

"Of course I'm voting for Barak, but my disappointment and disillusion have only gotten deeper," said Arie Azene, a leftist Jerusalem resident and successful painter who voted for Barak in 1999. "I don't think I'm alone in this feeling. You can see the number of people who don't know what to vote and an even larger number who don't feel any emotional involvement at all."

Azene sighed at the thought of what he called the euphoria of hopes and expectations that Barak's election inspired, and the apathy and anger that now dominate the political debate and have driven voters, especially centrists, away from Barak in droves.

"In this time of history, we came to a crucial point, a main event, but the personalities are not up to the level of the event," Azene said. "I'm voting for Barak again, but it's a vote against Sharon, not for Barak."

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