TEL AVIV, Israel – Apart from the usual horse race of an election – and this one is really down to the wire – tomorrow's contest to decide the makeup of the Israeli parliament has proved to be a slightly zany mixture of predictable and polarizing politics..
Most apparent is that there is no major issue that the traditional parties – Likud, Kadima and Labor – disagree on in any substantial way. They all pretty much agree that the attack on Gaza was justified; the economy is in big trouble; Iran is the major foreign threat; relations with Washington must be maintained at almost any cost; the disadvantaged must be helped; education must improve; and there isn't enough water.
|Kobi Gideon / EPA|
|Right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman, prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, on Monday.|
So instead, the choice among the major party leaders has become personal. Campaign commercials have become negative and personal, with the campaign focusing on the parties' leaders rather than policy. In that regard, polls show Kadima's Tzipi Livni catching up dramatically with Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, with Labor's Ehud Barak trailing. In addition, analysis has focused on speculation about what combination of parties will likely form a coalition government.
However, the blandness of the campaign, and the lack of clear distinctions, has left the field open to the one candidate who is different, in substance and appearance – Avigdor Lieberman.
Israeli Arabs call Lieberman, the leader of Israel Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") – a party that initially drew strength from the immigrant community, but has since become more mainstream – a fascist and a racist.
His controversial campaign slogan, "Without loyalty, there is no citizenship," calls for all citizens to swear an oath of allegiance to the country, as well as serve in the army or do some form of national service. If they don't, he says, they should lose their rights as citizens.
Critics say his platform is just a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on Israel's 1.5 million Arabs. And Jews from the largest orthodox party, Shas, call him Satan because like Israel's Arabs – most ultra-Orthodox members don't serve in the army.
He backs the idea of a Palestinian state, but suggests that Israel's Arab citizens – who make up 20 percent of the population – swap land with Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. Israeli Arabs see that plan as just another way of throwing them out their homes in Israel.
|FACT FILE: Learn about Israel's main political parties and key leaders|
Looking for a strong leader
But his message is winning hearts and minds in Israel -- polls show his party could win 15 to 20 seats in the 120 member parliament – and his campaign has pushed the once-dominant Labor party into fourth place for the first time in Israeli history.
Lieberman, who immigrated from what is now Moldova in 1978 and still speaks with a thick accent, has gained widespread support among the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel.
He portrays himself as a strong man with tough answers, someone who speaks his mind and is a real leader. And that, say analysts, is what many Israelis want in these hard times, even if he has fascist and/or racist leanings.
Yet, while it appears from the early polls that there can be no future government without Lieberman, that bodes ill for Israeli unity.
I was at a rally for Lieberman last night in Haifa. He is a powerful speaker, but the real action was outside the hall – Arab and Jewish demonstrators were united in their calls against fascism and Lieberman, while other Jews, mostly from the former Soviet republics, shouted abuse at them, as police kept the two sides apart.
Lieberman is not a man with many achievements to his name, so his critics, and even many of his supporters, say there's little chance of him implementing any of his ultranationalist plans. Still, the scene at the rally was not exactly a picture of a unified Israel ready to work together through tough times.