JERUSALEM -- Israel's next government may be more of the same, and the public is glum about the rerun.
To the surprise of perhaps no one but themselves, the two septuagenarian candidates for the top post have failed to generate much voter enthusiasm with the election just nine days away.
Political rallies have brought embarrassingly low attendance. Both parties have canceled events. Their much-ballyhooed rTC television ads are a resounding flop. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 76, has taken to trolling shopping malls to find voters, and challenger Yitzhak Rabin, 70, is going door-to-door to give his election spiel.
"Usually there's a strong smell of elections in the air," said Chaim Romon, a Labor Party member of the Knesset. "Israelis are familiar with this smell. It excites them. But this time, the smell is so faint."
One reason is the increasing likelihood the next government will continue the near-deadlock that has plagued Israeli governments since 1977.
An early lead in the polls suggesting Labor's opposition liberal bloc would win enough votes to form a government on its own has dwindled. Three polls out last week showed an even split between the liberal and conservative blocs.
There is much talk now of another power-sharing coalition composed of Labor and the ruling Likud. This awkward political marriage has been tried twice before, to the satisfaction of neither partner.
Part of the lack of enthusiasm is that the candidates are old political hats. Mr. Shamir and Mr. Rabin have been in politics for two decades. Both have been prime minister before. Neither one says much new, or well -- they both have somnolent speaking styles. Few minds are being changed.
"Voters are disappointed" in the choices, said Mr. Romon. "But they see the alternatives as not very good."
Even the campaign high jinks have failed to cause a stir.
A prankster sneaked some donkeys into the campaign offices of the Likud last week. Nobody laughed.
Hecklers invaded the campaign events of rivals at the start of the campaign. The audiences just went home.
Labor Party campaigners distributed condoms poking fun at the diminutive Mr. Shamir, imprinted with the words "watch out for the little guy." No one was outraged. The Health Department warned that the condoms might be damaged goods.
Young party cadres remain hot-blooded. Fistfights at political events are not uncommon, and two party workers were stabbed in skirmishes with opponents last week. But the general public is yawning.
"The public atmosphere surrounding the elections is much more . . . apathetic [than] I remember [from] previous election campaigns," Mr. Rabin remarked last week.
Many of the issues are emotional ones for Israelis. But the candidates' attempts to be all things to all people have blurred the distinctions between their positions, the voters complain.
Mr. Shamir and Mr. Rabin are scheduled to have only one face-to-face debate, on television Tuesday. It will be only 24 minutes long, and the laconic pace of the candidates will leave little time for substance. Someone counted the words in the 1988 debate: Mr. Shamir used 1,150 and the moderator used 1,200.
The issues they may, or may not, address in the debate include:
* Settlements. This is the one area on which there are differences. Mr. Shamir has been obliged to reveal a philosophy previously obscured by his taciturn nature. Now he is unambiguous: He says the occupied territories are Jewish lands and "must be settled by Jews from one end to the other."
Mr. Rabin opposes government spending on those settlements at the expense of other domestic needs. He has promised to end "political" settlements in clearly Arab areas. But he would keep settling in the occupied territories near the borders of Arab countries for defense purposes, he says.
* Economy. Israel's unemployment is at 11.5 percent, inflation is creeping upward, and there is little growth in industry. Mr. Rabin has promised to immediately shift $1.7 billion from settlements to domestic spending, but the public seems strangely apathetic to the issue.
* Immigration. The Zionist dream of drawing all Jews to Israel is suffering with the drastic drop in immigration from the former Soviet Union. Most of the Russian Jews that Israel had hoped would come have balked because they heard there are few jobs. Mr. Shamir boasts of the 400,000 who did come in the last two years. Mr. Rabin points to the 1 million who did not.
* Peace talks. Both parties say they will continue the peace talks. Mr. Rabin has said he would begin to meet "daily" with the Palestinian delegation and reach a quick agreement on the occupied territories. He is critical, however, of ongoing negotiations with Syria, saying there is nothing to talk about.
* Security. Polls show the public's fear for the safety of the country is the biggest concern. Both top candidates are boasting they are the toughest and the best able to protect Israel. Mr. Shamir's Likud bloc claims its conservative hawkishness is the only way to ensure peace. Mr. Rabin reminds voters of his role in the victories of the 1967 war.
* The United States. Early in the campaign, the Likud planned to capitalize on resentment over the U.S. refusal to grant loan guarantees and perceived slights by President Bush. But the America-bashing only further pointed out Israel's dependence on the United States. When Mr. Bush, faced with his own political pressures, made soothing overtures to Israel and its American supporters, the issue was dropped.
* Corruption. A series of mini-scandals and a damning state comptroller's report have painted several ministers of the current government as concerned only with perks, paybacks and payoffs. The Labor Party is pushing hard on this theme, arguing that Likud has been in power too long and has become corrupt.
The corruption issue is a wild card. The depth of resentment is unclear. "You have to get really big corruption to get people angry," said Hebrew University political science Professor Peter Medding. "Israelis work on the assumption that politi
cians are corrupt."
* God. The small but politically powerful ultra-religious parties are not only claiming God's support, they have sent him on the campaign trail. Rabbis of the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties have promised God's blessings in return for votes, an inducement the central elections committee calls illegal.
The Labor Party traditionally favors more separation of God and state. But even Shimon Peres, the party's second-highest official, proclaimed recently, "God is . . . disappointed with Likud. He has gone over to Labor."
Upping the stakes, a rabbi involved in one of the endless squabbles among the ultra-religious promised that anyone who votes for the Shas, one of his religious rivals, would be damned and go to hell.
The results, and eternal consequences, will be known after June 23.