The issue for most Israeli voters: Its security, stupid

JERUSALEM — What issues will Israeli voters be thinking about when they go to the polls next Wednesday?

Security, security and security.

Judging from a random survey of voters, as well as from the campaign banners, posters and televised spots that have appeared in recent weeks, the 1996 election is turning out to be a one-issue campaign.

To paraphrase the Bill Clinton campaign in 1992, it's the security, stupid.

Regardless of where one stands politically, security has overtaken such issues as the economy, education and the relationship between religion and the state.

The issue is influencing Israelis all across the political spectrum as they prepare to vote for the next Knesset and, for the first time, vote directly for prime minister.

Recent polls show the race for the premiership between Labor's Shimon Peres and Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu is too close to call.

And whether voters are thinking of the recent Hamas terrorist attacks or the Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon, their perception of each candidate's ability to meet Israel's security needs may decide the race.

"Security is the most important thing for me," says Annie Pevoncello, who emigrated from Italy nine years ago.

"We need peace and security together. I plan to vote for Labor and Peres because we have to stop terrorism," she adds. "Remember, there were terrorist attacks under the Likud, too, so Bibi [Netanyahu] isn't offering anything new.

Liana Kanto, an Israeli-born waitress who supports the Likud, agrees that "security will always be the No. 1 issue, unless sometime in the future we have peace with Iran and Iraq.

But she says she'll "probably vote for Bibi, although Peres is a man of vision, because it will do more good in the long run."

Israelis have not totally forgotten all other issues, of course.

Kanto, who just completed her army service and plans to enter college this fall, says the government should give young couples more economic support, and more universities should be built to ensure better educational opportunities.

Meanwhile, cognizant that many Israelis view Peres as a diplomat, not a soldier, the Labor Party has draped the country with "I Feel Secure With Peres" posters.

Likud, on the other hand, is promising "Peace With Jerusalem" and "Peace With Security."

Most Israeli households, in response, are tuning into the half-hour of televised campaign commercials that follow the 8 p.m. news broadcasts.

Those spots, partly sponsored by a governmental campaign fund, are the high point — some say the low point — of what many consider to be a lackluster campaign.

Likud's televised ads feature Netanyahu as serious and prime ministerial, standing against a backdrop of wood-paneled walls and the Israeli flag. They also portray Peres as a partner in crime with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In the Labor spots, Peres is seen kissing attractive teenage girls (read: he is youthful), shaking hands with important foreign dignitaries (he is diplomatic) and visiting the troops on the front (he is Mr. Security).

Unlike Likud's spots, which feature graphic footage of terrorist bus bombings, Labor's ads show photogenic Israelis driving sexy convertibles (read: Israel's economy is benefiting from the peace process).

Are Israelis taking those televised messages seriously?

Yosef Lapid, an editorial writer at the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, thinks not.

"People are watching the commercials as a curiosity item, as if they were watching a sports event to see whose horse is winning," he says.

An old Israeli law prohibits the country's electronic media from interviewing political candidates during the three weeks leading up to the elections.

"The silly thing is that if an Israeli politician is on CNN, he can be seen by the two-thirds of Israelis with cable TV," Lapid says. "Only the people without cable can't see [them]."

Lapid, who once headed Israel Television, notes that the law restricting coverage was established 30 to 40 years ago to prevent the government from disseminating propaganda through news clips shown at movie theaters, long before TV was introduced in 1967.

Despite those ads and the presence of campaign posters in every nook and cranny, Lapid calls this year's campaign "surprisingly low key" — because, he says, there is no real difference between the parties on economic and religious issues.

"The one major difference was the Palestinian issue, but now that Netanyahu has agreed to uphold what has already been agreed on in the peace process, even this is just a question of emphasis," he adds.

"Everyone knows that terror will exist, regardless of who heads the government. It existed before, it will exist after."

Gabriela Asubel, an immigrant from Argentina, agrees that "peace is the only issue," so she'll vote for Peres and either Labor or the left-wing Meretz party.

"In my opinion, the only solution is for us and the Palestinians to have our own countries and that way we'll be safe," she says.