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A bitter defeat for divided right

Israel elections: Deep gulf between religious and secular revealed as fractious campaign comes to fevered end
"WE HAVE been up since seven this morning bringing old people to vote in the election," says Esri Erlanger, an ultra-orthodox student in the Mea She'arim district of Jerusalem. "Don't believe the polls. It will be a close election. Unfortunately, unlike the last election, the left is united and the right divided."

In the north Jerusalem suburb of Neve Ya'akov, inhabited mainly by Russian and Moroccan Jews, there are signs of this. Valentina, from Minsk in Belarus, says she has voted for an extreme right-wing Russian party and Ehud Barak, the Labour leader, because the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is too close to the ultra-orthodox.

Israeli elections are so hard fought and vitriolic because they do more than change one party or one government for another. They are part of an ongoing cultural war between different communities, and that was never more the case than in this election. The bitterest words of the campaign were exchanged, not over who becomes prime minister, but who holds the Interior Ministry with its control over who can be an Israeli citizen.

A sign of the divisions is the number of parties that were yesterday claiming to unite the nation. Mr Erlanger says: "I fear a national split because Barak will open shops on Shabbat [sabbath] and send religious students into the army."

Meanwhile Tommy Lapid, the leader of a newly formed hard-line secular party, Shinui, which is attracting significant support, has his own plans for uniting Israel. He says: "Cowardice and hesitancy have allowed the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) to interfere with our education, our leisure and shopping, our marriages and even our burials."

By yesterday morning every crossroads around Jerusalem looked like a medieval pageant with railings, lampposts and bridges draped with flags and banners calling for support for the different parties. Traffic slowed to a crawl as drivers paused to accept leaflets pressed on them by party workers.

A sign of the acrimony is the row that has broken out over the death of Rahamim Hevroni, a one-legged activist for Likud, Mr Netanyahu's party. Likud said he had died after a fight while Mr Barak's party says he fell over. Mr Hevroni's family is denouncing "the Likud's attempt to adopt Rahamim's death as if we were talking about a political assassination. That is a vicious lie and we are going to sue the Likud after the Shiva [seven days' traditional mourning]."

The secular parties are also worried that the the ultra- orthodox are using the ID cards of the dead, the sick and the absent to increase their vote. Observers were out in force in the polling booths yesterday, but admitted there was not much they could do to stop it.

Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu, who is 8 to 10 percentage points behind in the polls, can seldom resist the opportunity to deliver a low blow. At his last press conference in the campaign he accused Mr Barak of being an agent of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. He said the Labour leader was planning to establish an enemy state "on the outskirts of Tel Aviv".

Even if Mr Netanyahu does lose, however, he will leave a legacy of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank that will be difficult to remove. Even as voting was going on yesterday two mechanical diggers were building a new industrial zone near Ofra, a settlement of 400 Jewish families outside Ramallah.

Mr Arafat will hope to be one of the main beneficiaries of a Barak victory. He has never got much from Mr Netanyahu. But the roads and settlements that now twist and turn around Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank make it very difficult to realise a Palestinian state that is anything more than a collection of cantons.

In many ways the campaign of 1999 is a reverse of the election of three years ago when Mr Netanyahu came to power. Then, the right was united, now it is disunited. Most of the Likud leadership who stood with him in 1996 have changed sides and will be in Mr Barak's government. In both cases the ruling party was over-confident and found the ground crumbling under its feet.

One thing will not change after the election. Because Israeli political parties often represent ethnic and religious communities as well as political views, they always live to fight another day. The secular reaction to the religious parties' actions in power over the past three years will be followed by a religious counter-reaction. The next election will also be about uniting Israel.