Deep divisions await Israeli victor
Beit Shemesh, Israel
The angry voices of Moroccan Jewish immigrants here in this town not far from Jerusalem explain, better than a hundred political pundits, why Israel's real election politics will begin only after Monday's votes are counted.
The voices offer heated testimony of deep political and social divisions inside Israel that could complicate the business of governing even after a new government is formed.
These fissures split right wing from left; the traditionally disadvantaged from the privileged; the so-called Sephardic Jews, who came here from North Africa or Arab countries and who tend to support the ruling Likud, and ethnic Europeans, or Ashkenazim, who have long dominated the Labor Party.
At time of writing, the first, necessarily chancy Israeli television projection - just after voting stations closed on a balmy midsummer night - foresaw a slight plurality for the opposition Labor Party over the right-wing Likud coalition that has ruled Israel for the last seven years.
But the projection also suggested that, as throughout Israeli history, neither of the major groups would win the outright parliamentary majority needed to govern alone. If so, this means there will be intense horse-trading by either Labor or Likud with various of two dozen smaller parties in order to cobble together a workable governing majority.
Since more of the small parties are ideologically compatible with Likud than with Labor, the extent of Labor's plurality will be crucial. By Tuesday morning, the count will be clearer. And the horse-trading will begin.
The pace of any major policy shifts will depend on how solid a coalition Labor or Likud can piece together.
Labor wants to revive attempts to swap land on the Israeli-occupied West Bank for peace with neighboring Jordan. Labor also says it will get Israeli troops home from Lebanon within six to nine months.
And while neither Labor nor Likud has found it politic to say so explicitly, there is little doubt here that whoever wins will have to embark on some form of austerity program to heal Israel's battered economy.
Here in Beit Shemesh - Sephardi country - the sidewalk voices of election day suggest any new coalition may also have to watch closely the risk of aggravating social, economic, and other tensions outside Jerusalem's hilltop parliament.
Editorial pages have breathed a collective sigh of relief that the campaign was almost devoid of the kind of Sephardi-Ashkenazi scuffles or tomato-pitching that marked the last election in 1981.
But, said an Ashkenazi woman who returned from the United States to vote, ''The divisions are still very much there.... I am fully in favor of the Sephardim's finally getting a real say in running Israel'' under seven years of Likud rule.
''But let's be honest. I have about as much in common in world view and political opinion with the Sephardim as I do with a Japanese.
''Both a Japanese and I are part of the technological age. But the Sephardim and I are Jewish and Israeli. But that's it.''
In Beit Shemesh there was little visible evidence of the Sephardic ''drift'' away from the Likud of which some pundits here have spoken.
Whether such a shift has occurred will be clear only with Tuesday's near-final returns.
The pundits' argument is that the Likud-era shattering of Israel's economy - with inflation now surging ahead at some 400 percent yearly - would force the traditionally less advantaged Sephardim to vote Labor for their pocketbooks.
Cohen Sion says no. ''We are workers here,'' he says in French remembered from Morocco. ''Labor says they're for the workers, but they're not.''
A crowd in Beit Shemesh's main shopping area quickly chimes in. ''Labor is for proteksia,'' says one person, using the Hebrew word for the kind of insider's pull which, the Sephardim argue, gave most social and economic benefits to Ashkenazim under Labor Party rule.
''We've had seven years without proteksia. Seven years of equality,'' says another man in a near shout. ''If Labor comes back, we'll be treated like blacks!''
Indeed, says Jenny Berger, one of the few in Beit Shemesh who said they were voting for Labor: ''Things did get better for the people here under Likud.'' They got more money. More consumer goods.
''But this is an illusion, at the expense of our economy. Life has got better , but that's why there's 400 percent inflation.''
The main shift discernible in Beit Shemesh was from Likud to small parties further to the right: notably to Rafael Eitan, former Army chief of staff, or to the aggressively anti-Palestinian party of US-born Rabbi Meir Kahane.
In the horse-trading ahead, this could help Labor. Likud Premier Yitzhak Shamir made this clear at a rally last week by exhorting cheering thousands to avoid voting for smaller parties even if they are ideologically close to Likud.
Yuval Neeman, whose extreme-right Tehiya Party includes General Eitan, explains the dilemma.
He acknowledges that even though Tehiya has been doing well in opinion polls, an election-day advance could turn sour. Unlike some other small parties, Tehiya can credibly pair only with Likud.
Recalling the experience of some US pilots in World War II who would sink enemy shipping only to return and find their own aircraft carrier gone, Mr. Neeman quipped about the Likud bloc's trailing in the polls: ''I have this fear that my aircraft carrier may be sinking.''