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Israelis Decide on New Premier

May 17, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ In a country where few are shy about expressing opinions, Israeli voters debated and discussed, argued and complained, fulminated and pontificated _ right up until the moment when they went into the voting booth today.

It was a scene that took place everywhere: on army bases and border outposts, in Jerusalem’s walled Old City and in dusty Negev desert towns, in rural kibbutzes and beachside nightclub districts.

``It’s fateful! So you have to vote, you just have to,″ said Richie Fox, 57, a retired pizza shop owner. ``But these guys! How, I mean how, do you pick one? The ideal situation would be for both of them to lose.″

The elections, pitting left-leaning challenger Ehud Barak against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are a referendum on the Middle East peace process, Israel’s religious-secular schism and the flagging economy. But the biggest issue might have been Netanyahu’s character.

``To Bibi or not to Bibi,″ punned pollster Hanoch Smith, using the prime minister’s nickname. ``I hold that the election was really about Bibi ... It seems that the public has chosen not to believe him.″

Israel has one of the world’s highest regular voter turnouts; about 80 percent of eligible voters usually cast ballots. No official figures were immediately available from today’s voting, but turnout appeared typically heavy, with long lines forming outside polling stations even before they opened at 7 a.m..

Israel is famous for its casual style, and many people arrived at the polls in shorts and sandals, sharing cups of coffee, herding the kids along. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who now heads an immigrant-rights party, held his daughters’ hands and chatted with neighbors in Hebrew and Russian as he waited to vote in Jerusalem’s Katamon district.

On the winding streets of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, builder Steve Tanenbaum was explaining democracy to his 5-year-old son, Caleb, as he walked to the polls.

``It’s like if we’re deciding whether to go to the beach, and you say yes, and Joshie says no, and your mom says yes ... It’s the way we decide how to do things,″ he said as Caleb listened intently.

Religious frictions came into play even at the polling places.

In Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Netanyahu’s Likud party complained that election monitors were asking some Orthodox Jews, who customarily cover their heads with hats or wigs, to take them off to prove their hair color matched that listed on their ID cards in order to prevent vote fraud. Election staff denied any excessive checks.

Even though politics is no lighthearted matter in this part of the world, sunny skies _ and the fact that most people get the day off from work _ contributed to a holiday atmosphere. Many people headed to the Mediterranean seaside, the Dead Sea or forest picnicking grounds once voting was out of the way.

But as always in Israel, security was a concern. About 20,000 police, security guards and soldiers were out on patrol, Israel radio said, with some officers in plainclothes and carrying video cameras to capture any violent confrontations between competing party activists.

Unlike in many countries, convicts can vote in Israel. In one jail, the polls closed early because by midday, every single inmate had cast a ballot.

``We always have a very high vote among the prisoners,″ said Uzi Yitzhaki, the elections committee official in charge of the prison vote. ``For them, it’s a welcome break in their routine.″

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