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As Israelis vote, peace seems distant

Tuesday - 1/22/2013, 12:42am  ET

Israelis wait for transportation under election campaign billboards of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Israel's Labor party candidate Shelly Yachimovichin, in the central Israeli city of Ramat gan, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. The general elections will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. Hebrew on billboard reads, "It can be better here." (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

DAN PERRY
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Benjamin Netanyahu seems poised for re-election as Israel's prime minister in Tuesday's voting, the result of the failure of his opponents to unite behind a viable candidate against him -- and the fact that most Israelis no longer seem to believe it's possible to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

The widely held assumption of a victory by Netanyahu comes despite his grim record: there is no peace process, there is growing diplomatic isolation and a slowing economy, and his main ally has been forced to step down as foreign minister because of corruption allegations.

Even so, Netanyahu has managed to convince many Israelis that he offers a respectable choice by projecting experience, toughness and great powers of communication in both native Hebrew and flawless American English.

He was also handed a gift by the opposition. Persistent squabbling among an array of parties in the moderate camp has made this the first election in decades without two clear opposing candidates for prime minister. Even Netanyahu's opponents have suggested his victory is inevitable.

"His rivals are fragmented," said Yossi Sarid, a dovish former Cabinet minister who now writes a column for the Haaretz newspaper. "He benefits by default," he told The Associated Press in an interview.

The confusion and hopelessness that now characterize the issue of peace with the Palestinians has cost the moderates their historical campaign focus.

Many Israelis are disillusioned with the bitter experience of Israel's unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005 that led to years of violence. Others believe Israel's best possible offers have been made and rejected already, concluding that they cannot meet the Palestinians' minimal demands.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that in 2008 he offered the Palestinians roughly 95 percent of the West Bank, and additional territory from Israel in a "land swap." He also said he offered shared control of Jerusalem, including its holy sites. The Palestinians have disputed some of Olmert's account and suggested they could not close a deal with a leader who was by then a lame duck.

"There can't be peace because we've tried everything already. All the options have been exhausted. They apparently don't want to make peace, said Eli Tzarfati, a 51-year-old resident of the northern town of Migdal Haemek. "It doesn't matter what you give them -- it won't be enough."

Tzarfati expressed what seems to be a common sentiment.

A poll conducted last week in Israel by the New Wave Polling Research Institute found that 52 percent of respondents support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a peace agreement. Yet 62 percent said they do not believe the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is a partner for peace -- and an identical number said it is not possible to reach a peace agreement. The survey questioned 576 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

In the absence of peace talks, those who wanted to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands used to speak of a unilateral pullout from at least some of the territories. But that idea has been mostly removed from the table because of the Gaza pullout, which led to the territory's takeover by Hamas militants and years of rocket fire into Israel.

This situation leaves many Israelis at a loss over what to do next.

Since most of the Palestinians are now living in autonomous zones inside the West Bank and prevented from entering Israel, and violence has largely subsided, the most attractive option to Israelis seems to be ignoring the issue.

That is what the main opposition party chose to do in this campaign. Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich has mostly focused on a populist social message in hopes of attracting working-class citizens who might otherwise vote for the hard-liners. In the past, Labor has been the leader of Israel's peace camp.

Another member of the moderate camp, former TV personality Yair Lapid, argues primarily for ending the costly government subsidies and draft exemptions granted to Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority.

Only one party with national leadership ambitions, the new "Movement" formed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has made Mideast peace the centerpiece of its campaign. Polls show the party gaining little traction.

Sarid dismissed current public opinion as a "weather vane" that can easily shift.

"Israel has gone to war seven, eight times. It never despaired of going to war," he said. "If after seven attempts at war you don't despair, and after the first attempt at peace you do, that seems strange, no?"

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