TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israelis face tomorrow's national election at loggerheads over who will lead the country, but in broader agreement that they are not thrilled with either choice.
Despite slick ad blitzes modeled after U.S. campaigns, the two contenders for prime minister have largely failed to overcome initial suspicions by voters that both are flawed candidates.
"I'm really not happy about this," said Elan Fisher, 27, a factory manager. "I don't trust one of the candidates, and the other doesn't suit me."
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, now in virtually a dead-heat with challenger Benjamin Netanyahu in the prime minister's race, yesterday called tomorrow's vote "the most crucial elections in the history of the state of Israel."
With only a slight discount for hyperbole, many Israelis agree. The election may determine if calm or conflict will rule the Middle East. But the gravity of the issues and the import of the rhetoric still have failed to inspire many voters.
Some 80 percent to 90 percent of eligible Israelis will vote tomorrow; Unlike in the United States, it is virtually unthinkable not to. But many here will troop to the polls with no enthusiasm in their step.
"In Israel, you don't vote for the best, you vote against the worst," complained Adva Hova, 24, a hospital technician and Peres supporter.
"Nobody's good. Not Peres. Not Netanyahu," agreed her friend, Sara Rosenberg, 24, who said she probably will vote for the Likud candidate, Netanyahu.
Many Israelis say Peres, who is running as the incumbent by default after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has not fully overcome a careerlong image problem of being too weak with Arabs and untrustworthy.
Netanyahu comes across to some Israelis as being too slick, too packaged and too ambitious.
The lack of enthusiasm by the voters is reflected in the tepid pitch of the campaign. Israeli commentators have called it dull, boring and lifeless.
A lackluster campaign was surprising, given the high drama of recent life in Israel, which has lurched from a wrenching assassination to suicide bombings to a mini-war waged on Lebanon.
But once out of Jerusalem, where the political air is typically heated, the election takes on a less fevered tenor. Here, in Tel Aviv, the sweat of early summer drains the passion from political rhetoric. By the idle sea, speeches about tomorrow's Israeli election begin to sound like the annoying buzz of beach flies.
This has been a tame campaign by Israeli standards. In past elections, fistfights were regular features of political rallies.
This campaign passed with just one Labor election worker shot in the leg by a Likud rival. "The bullets always fly from right to left," say the liberals, with a certain smugness.
Perhaps the relative quiet of this campaign is the consequence of the Rabin assassination, and its sobering demand to look in the mirror at Israeli violence.
Or perhaps, as one commentator suggested, most Israelis now have cable TV and they have turned into couch potatoes. Or perhaps neither candidate excites anyone enough to throw a punch.
"In the last election, I worked in a voting booth, but this year I'm not even going to vote," said Irit Avregel, 23, a secretary. "The politicians just talk. They don't do anything."
Even many of those with a choice say they backed into it.
"I have to blame somebody," said Joseph Shor, a pharmacist near the Dizengoff Center in downtown Tel Aviv, explaining why he will vote against incumbent Peres. He is still grappling with the financial consequences of a Palestinian bomb blast outside his store March 4 that killed 13 persons and shattered his pharmacy.
Yuri Stettner, 60, was more glum. He sat at a sidewalk cafe on the corner where the Dizengoff bomb went off. He is an artist, and looks the part: gray hair swept back, hands peeling from the solvents for his oils, cigarette in a small cigarette holder, and an expressed longing for Paris.
"I think if the right wing wins, the peace process is over," he said. "If that happens, I'll think about going back to France."
There are True Believers. Pazit Ashkenazi is one. The 26-year-old Likud activist wants nothing more than to mobilize the campaign workers tomorrow to get out the vote.
She has been working for Likud bloc elections for 10 years, she said. As she talks, amid the quiet hum of activity at the 14-story Likud headquarters, she punches the air with a cheerleader's chop and virtually swoons in sincerity.
"To make people believe, they have to believe with their heart. I can make them do that," she said.
But even she admits that this election lacks the fire of previous campaigns.
"In 1988 and in 1992, people were hyped-up. You could see it in their eyes. This place was a beehive. Now, because the priority is the media, people are not so enthused."
Nearby, in the more modest Labor Party headquarters, Ariela Admon, 58, spends 12 hours a day in a cramped office, surrounded by a flurry of paper and ringing phones.
She is a traffic controller for campaign volunteers, trying to get people where they are needed, cars where they must be, coordinate banners and stickers and poll watchers and a myriad of other details. She does it for free.
"To be honest, I don't really admire Peres as a person that much," she admitted.
"But I like his politics.
"And, after the Rabin assassination, I had to do something."
Pub Date: 5/28/96