Elections, Israeli Style

They're colorful. They're intense. They're like a carnival. They're democratic.

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For example, just prior to the elections to the 16th Knesset in January 2003, Eliva Avigdor of the taxi drivers' party entered into an alliance with a party called "Men's Rights in the Family." That obscure movement of Israeli men has never won a seat in Knesset, but Avigdor, who promised to drum up support among fellow drivers in return for the second spot on the party list, was confident his politicking would finally win his party a coveted Knesset seat.

Internal elections are held among party faithful to rank the candidates who will appear on the election slate and sometimes determine who will stand as the candidate for prime minister. For a brief moment, the elections detour into a cacophony of infighting. Party chieftains with naked ambition vie for control by making loyalty pacts with grass roots activists and distributing "hit lists,'' marking enemies that are to be boycotted.

But then it's off to the races. Weekly polls in newspapers try to foresee the makeup up of the parliament. Giant highway billboards become filled with pictures of party leaders smiling down at commuters. Down by the roadside, where it's free to hang a banner on a tree or a guard railing, the prime spots are as hotly contested as the election, so much so that political parties not only deploy activists to dump campaign literature on passersby, they also deploy activists to "stand guard" next to the party's campaign posters. Their job is to watch and maybe even intimidate to ensure the stream of campaign posters doesn't get ripped down. In the aftermath of the vote, highways will be littered with discarded banners.          

On the Airwaves

Three weeks prior to Election Day, the campaigns take to the airwaves. Each party is allotted blocs of radio and television time to broadcast political commercials, which are elaborate productions that become prime time entertainment. By the end of the campaign, party jingles will be embedded into the collective subconscious of the country.

Of course there are more creative ways to garner votes. Religious parties enlist spiritual leaders to make up blessings for followers who come to the polling stations on Election Day.

But ultimately, the driving force behind the spectacle of the Israeli elections is the ever-present feeling the fate of the country is hanging on every vote.

"If you believe in the state of Israel as a Jewish state you have to be out here,'' said Ralph Konenthal, 40, who during the campaign for the 16th Knesset walked amid the Tel Aviv traffic with an Israeli flag in one hand and shouted "Vote Lamed!''

The Hebrew letter lamed is critical for Kronenthal's National Union party because when the voters disappear into the voting booth, they will be faced with an array of Hebrew letters. Spread out on the table will be an array of white slips with up to three letters, each one associated with a specific party. Voters place the slip in an envelope in the booth, and then emerge to stick the envelope in a ballot box covered in sky-blue paper with a menorah, the insignia of the State of Israel.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.