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Weary and wary, Israeli voters are wavering

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel's right-leaning Likud party, visits the Jerusalem's Western Wall on Monday and shake hands with potential supporters. General elections are set to take place on Tuesday.  Pierre Terdjman-flash90 / EPA
/ Source: NBC News

TEL AVIV, Israel — Tuesday’s trip to the polls will make five national elections in Israel in ten years.

That’s great news for pollsters, consultants, analysts and even some career-seeking politicians. Voters, however, are tuning out in vast numbers, leading to immense unpredictability at the end of what is a pivotal campaign.

With as many as 28 of the 120 seats still up for grabs in the the Israeli parliament, according to recent polls, all the predictions of the last few weeks preceding the election could end up turned on their head when the nation's weary voters finally have their say.

Dramatic predictions yet to be seen
The unpredictability is having a negative effect on all the major players. For instance, Kadima, the new party founded by now-comatose Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had been expected to handily win the elections with a large margin (and become the first party, other than the hawkish Likud Party or center-left Labor Party, to win a national Israeli election). But, according to many late polls, Kadima's lead had narrowed and it was now expected to win just 34 of the 120 available seats, down from 36 predicted last week.

The same polls have also suggested the collapse of Likud, which they say will get only around 14 seats, a serious blow to the party that has ruled Israeli politics for much of the last three decades. Meanwhile, the Labor party, which dominated Israeli politics from the birth of the nation until Likud's ascent, will be lucky if it wins more than 18 seats.

The only beneficiary of the confusion and apathy appears to be the right-wing National Union, whose base is the sizeable pool of Russian immigrant voters. Led by Avigdor Lieberman, who holds many of his election rallies in Russian and is a former bodyguard of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the party is espousing a law-and-order platform that includes get-tough policies aimed at both the Palestinians and Israeli criminals.Polls predict the National Union will win 12 seats, up from two it holds now.

More of the same old, same old
Most of the confusion surrounds Kadima, which, despite extensive claims that it is staking out a new middle path in Israeli politics, is coming under fire as a leftist party in centrist clothing. In particular, analysts and critics say, is that if the Kadima program is examined point by point, it is almost identical to platforms espoused by leftist parties.

With acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as their new front man in place of the ailing Sharon, Kadima’s plans to give up most of the occupied West Bank, relinquish some parts of East Jerusalem and retain military control of strategic parts of the Jordan River, are popular with many Israelis tired of conflict — and also strikingly familiar. In fact, the the traditionally left-wing Meretz party claims it must be part the next Kadima-led government because it has the same policies.

How goals will be achieved, yet to be seen
On the surface, the most notable losers in all this look to be Jewish settlers in the West Bank. If Kadima wins and forms the most likely alliance, with left-wing Labor and Meretz (as well as a couple of the orthodox parties whose main interest is financing for their religious schools), then about 70,000 settlers could be forced from their homes.

That said, it isn’t clear how Olmert would fulfill this pledge.

The evacuation of 9,000 Gaza settlers by Sharon last summer wasn’t as tough as feared because they mostly went in peace. However, forcing a mere nine families from their homes in a West Bank outpost called Amona earlier this year was much more traumatic.

And when it comes to those 70,000, who is going to do it? How much will it cost? What will happen to them afterwards? All questions that most here have no answers for. Certainly Olmert has no idea, they say.

No clear leader
The other major dilemma facing many voters is a striking lack of talent at the top of the three major parties.

Olmert is there by default as the former deputy to Sharon, who had a major stroke in January. Despite being generally recognized as having been competent since taking the reins, Olmert lacks Sharon's outsize personality and history as a military leader (for long a key asset in Israeli politics).

Meanwhile, the new Labor leader, Amir Peretz, also is inexperienced, having risen to the post when key Laborites such as stalwart Shimon Peres defected to Kadima. He’s never held a major government portfolio.

And former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of Likud, has been tainted by corruption charges (for which he was acquitted) and is widely regarded as having run one of the worst election campaigns in Likud history.

Critical time
Adding to voters' woes are worries about security, with concerns that Palestinian militants, emboldened by the success of the radical Hamas party in recent elections, would launch attacks.

To counter this possibility, West Bank checkpoints have been beefed up, leading to extensive traffic delays, and police have closed parts of the Dome of the Rock-Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem's Old City, a hotly disputed holy site.