JERUSALEM — With Israel facing a crucial national election on March 28, the big news here early this week was Sharon Stone’s visit to the famed Western (Wailing) Wall, the one part of the Temple that survived when victorious Romans in A.D. 70 stepped over Israelite corpses to raze the rest.
I was there on Sunday afternoon when the actress came, flashing peace signs at Orthodox men in black hats and suits who peered into the women’s section of the Wall plaza to catch a glimpse of the action. On Monday, the newspaper Haaretz had two big photos of her with the quotation: "I’ve always been attracted to Jews. I like dark men who are drawn to study, to art."
This was one of the weirder moments during a national election campaign here that should be filled with intense debates about war and peace, but is not. Newspapers have been running stories with headlines such as, "Apathy characterizes electioneering," "Broken promises, cynical voters" and "Torah sages try to rally blase voters."
On Tuesday, Hebrew University government professor Avi Diskin described Israelis as "fed up with political parties … alienated, disappointed."
The public opinion polls show apathy, with only 20 percent of Israelis paying attention to political commercials. Pundits expect that voter turnout, which for 55 years until 2003 had never gone below 75 percent, might drop to 60 percent this year. I’ve been walking all over central Jerusalem and have seen almost no political signs or banners.
Israel seems to have a bad case of terrorism fatigue. That’s understandable: Americans since 9-11 have grown tired of terror alerts, and the Israelis have faced threats not just for 54 months, but for 58 years, ever since their country gained its independence from British control in 1948.
The problem, though, is that enemies sworn to destroy Israel are just a few miles away from central Jerusalem. Israelis know those bad guys won’t go away, but Lior Chorev, senior advisor to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has pushed an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach: Israel is building, with U.S. financial aid, a wall/electronic fence along its borders, one that "will be high enough so that we won’t have to see them (Palestinians) any longer."
Many Israelis are looking for not only an easy solution like that, but for "a political messiah," as Paul Wright of Jerusalem University College put it. In this election, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon present in body only following a stroke suffered earlier this year, they’re not finding one.
Sharon was the Andrew Jackson of Israeli politics: Just as a teenage Jackson fought in the American Revolution and in the 1820s was a living link to George Washington, so Sharon fought in the desperate wars at Israel’s dawn. Both generals were crusty, larger-than-life leaders succeeded by pint-sized career politicians, Martin van Buren and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert, 60, spent 20 years in the legislature before becoming mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years and then Sharon’s sidekick and successor. Opponents characterize him as a political chameleon who smokes big cigars, wears expensive suits and shoes, and — according to the Jerusalem Post — "oozes political experience and savvy."
He’s the favorite to become prime minister for the next four years as head of the new party, Kadima ("forward" in Hebrew), that Sharon founded. Olmert mentions his predecessor early and often, the way John Kerry mentioned his Vietnam War service — ‘Oh by the way, did you know that I am the handpicked successor?’ — as he speaks in front of Goliath-sized photos of Sharon.
Olmert’s key message is that he will complete construction of the wall/electronic fence, bending it around several large Jewish settlements that Israel will unilaterally annex. He will then turn over most of the West Bank to the Palestinians, and Israel will become, in Olmert’s words, "a country that is fun to live in."
Some Israelis have not fallen for a panacea, a politician and a promise of parties, but many apparently are giving in. How the mighty have fallen.