Tiring of moderates, many Israelis prefer 'iron fist'

ASHKELON, Israel — Three years ago, Sagiv Plio decided to shelve his long-standing support for Israel's hawkish Likud Party and give the country's new centrist Kadima Party a chance to run things.

However, after watching Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert struggle for three years to handle serious challenges from militant Hamas and Hezbollah forces, the Ashkelon event planner has had enough.

Hours after Gaza militants fired another rocket at his hometown of Ashkelon earlier this week, Plio said that Olmert and his allies had failed to live up to expectations.

Backed by voters such as Plio, Ashkelon was a Likud stronghold that voted for Kadima in 2006. After Israel's latest military operation in Gaza failed to halt Palestinian rocket attacks, however, angry voters are ready to move to the right, and in many cases the far right.

That's bad news for the Obama administration's high-priority effort to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, because the far-right parties oppose any concessions on key issues such as control of Jerusalem and the right of Jews to settle in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, between Israel and Jordan.

The view echoes throughout the country. Polls find that the rightist bloc of parties is expected to win 68 out of 120 parliament seats in Tuesday's election. The far right Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, could be the big gainer, displacing the moderate Labor party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as the third biggest party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Dr. Etta Bick of the Ariel University Center in the West Bank said that voters were moving right because of a change in priorities,

"The issue, if not the peace process . . . is security, and on security the public is on the right," Bick said. "There is disillusion about the peace process."

Like many Israelis, Plio pined for the tough, decisive leadership of Ariel Sharon, the battle-tested former Likud leader who split to form the center-right Kadima Party in 2006.

"With Ariel Sharon it was different. He would have acted, not talked," Plio said of the former Israeli prime minister, who was felled by a stroke right before the 2006 election and is still in a coma.

When Olmert led Kadima to victory after Sharon's stroke, he vowed to lead Israel into a new era of detente with the Palestinians. The Palestinians changed the power dynamic two months later, however, in democratic elections that propelled hard-line Hamas leaders into control of Gaza.

Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic relations went into another freeze. After Hamas-led militants captured Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier, Olmert sent troops into Gaza in June 2006. Two weeks later, Hezbollah militants captured two more Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon border, sparking a deadly 34-day war with Israel.

Olmert barely survived the political fallout at the time, and the nation largely viewed the war with Hezbollah as a setback for Israel's image as the most feared military in the Middle East.

Political corruption probes forced Olmert to curtail his ambitions, but he sought to reassert Israel's military prowess by sending forces back into Gaza last December.

Israeli voters don't seem to be swayed, however.

For many, even hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu isn't tough enough. In the final days of the campaign, there's been a surge of support for harder-liner Lieberman.

"I'm a Likudnik, but I'm voting more to the right," 34-year-old hairdresser David Arbel said. "Lieberman maybe. I'm voting against the Arabs."

The final polls before Tuesday's vote showed Lieberman's party winning 19 seats, which would make it Israel's third largest, ahead of Barack's Labor Party.

"With Lieberman we'll stand tall," said Eli Pariente, a 48-year-old Ashkelon resident. "He has an iron fist, and we need that in Israel."

This outcome frightens many on the left, who brand the party as racist. They point to the party slogan, "Without loyalty there is no citizenship," as a thinly disguised slap at Israel's Arab citizens. Lieberman has scuffled with Arab members of the Knesset. The party also calls for a citizenship law that would call on all citizens to sign loyalty oaths to the Jewish state. Failure to sign would result in losing the right to vote or to be elected.

These issues seem to have little importance for Rosie, a 37-year-old teacher who was sitting in an Ashkelon mall having a cup of coffee with a friend and who wouldn't give her last name.

"Last time I voted for Kadima, but now I'm thinking of voting for Likud," she said. "They promised us security, but the conditions my children live in are unacceptable."

She became visibly upset when talking about the air raid sirens that went off earlier that morning.

During Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza, Palestinian militants fired more than four dozen rockets at Ashkelon, including one that killed a resident.

"I want someone who will give us security. I don't care what the world thinks," she said. "My son is 2 years old, and to see him during the sirens is not a reality I'm willing to live with."

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent)


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