News Analysis: Floating voters crucial in Israeli elections

YAVNE, Israel — Since the bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv evened the race between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, most agree the key to winning Israel's May 29 election is the "floating voter."

There are many demographic bloc votes in Israel: The Orthodox will vote for Netanyahu, Israeli Arabs for Peres; the poor and poorly educated will go for Netanyahu, the well-to-do and well-educated for Peres.

And many Israelis are ideologically committed to either right or left. Those voters have made up their minds; neither of the candidates' campaigns can do much to change them.

But neither candidate can win with just the support of his true believers. Floating voters — those who are undecided, or who say they may change their minds by election day — account for about 20 percent of the electorate, says professor Avi Degani, a Tel Aviv University social scientist.

So the candidates have focused almost exclusively on that uncommitted, malleable mass of voters, aiming their messages at the political center. Trying to woo those who fear he's too hawkish, Netanyahu upholds peace as a goal. Targeting voters who think he's "soft on the Arabs," Peres speaks of strength.

It is impossible to draw a composite profile of the floating voter. A slight majority are women. The young are overrepresented in those ranks, but so are the old. A large number are Russian immigrants.

But the bulk, says Degani, are lower-middle-class Sephardim in their 30s and older.

Politically they lean right. Among those with a tentative preference, those favoring Peres are softer in their support than those for Netanyahu, said Degani.

"A lot of [the latter] are traditional Likud supporters who switched to Rabin in 1992," says public opinion pollster Rafi Smith. "But they had such high expectations, and when these weren't fulfilled, they started moving back to the Likud and Netanyahu."

Yavne, some 20 miles south of Tel Aviv, is the sort of town where one might expect to find a considerable number of floating voters.

One of the more successful "development towns" set up to absorb North African immigrants in the 1950s, Yavne is now more lower-middle-class than poor. While the town is traditionally pro-Likud, its best-known politician, former mayor and current Member of the Knesset Meir Shetreet, is probably the Likud's most left-wing member.

The main street entering Yavne is festooned with political posters — the predominant sentiment is for Netanyahu but Peres is well-represented, as is the National Religious Party.

On one stretch of the street are posters for the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party; sandwiched in the middle is one for the left-of-center Meretz party.

"A lot of families are split between Netanyahu and Peres," says a Netanyahu supporter who runs a shwarma stand in the center of town with his brother, a Peres voter.

Most people interviewed say without hesitation they will vote for Netanyahu and that there is no chance they will support Peres.

But at the taxi dispatcher's post, a driver in his 50s says he is undecided and could still change his mind by May 29. For the moment, he favors Peres.

"We know Peres well. He's for peace, which is good for Israel," the driver says.

Baker Mazal Azulai, 50, says she and her husband have always voted Likud and will do so again in the Knesset elections. But they are undecided about the prime minister's race.

"Whoever's best for the Israeli people," Azulai says.

Asked to list the candidates' pros and cons, she can't come up with an answer.

Neither can salesman Dani Yitzhak, 36. "Maybe I'll vote Peres," he says, "but they're both garbage."

Degani says most floating voters will probably make their decisions based on personal feelings, not on a final weighing of the issues.

"All the arguments have been made; all the points have been discussed over and over. There's nothing new to add," he says, noting that floating voters are unenthusiastic about both candidates.

"Peres…waited too long to respond to the bus bombings, and he waited too long to go after Hezbollah in Lebanon," says Degani.

"Netanyahu suffers because he's spent most of the last few years wheeling and dealing to keep…the reins of the Likud."

Tel Aviv law student Monique Elul, 22, maintains that "it's hard to tell the difference between them. Netanyahu is strong on security but he also wants peace. But then Peres also wants security."

Accounting student Limor Ohayon, 23, says, "I feel closer to the right, and Peres seems too far to the left, so I'll probably vote for Bibi [Netanyahu]. But I haven't made up my mind yet."

Political advertisements regularly feature Sephardim offering man-in-the-street testimonials. Their all-time political hero, Menachem Begin, has lately figured large in these ads — both Netanyahu's and Peres'.

Netanyahu tries to compare himself to Begin, asserting, "Menachem Begin made our first peace, and we will make the next."

But Peres has been trotting out Begin to make Netanyahu look bad by comparison. Sephardic men- and women-in-the-street laud Begin's simplicity and honesty while telling the camera they do not trust Netanyahu.

Such messages are aimed at the lower-middle-class Sephardic floating voter. But the young undecideds are also targets of the ads: In Peres', the candidate is shown hugging and kissing teenage admirers.

Young voters, traditionally more right-wing than their elders, moved sharply to the left after the Rabin assassination but shifted back after the bus bombings. Many are now undecided, and Peres is trying hard to help them decide.

Russian immigrants also have been shuffling back and forth over the last few years, and are now fluid in their political loyalties. The candidates' ads do not yet aim at them but future ads are expected to.

Recent polls show Peres leading by an average of 5 percent. If the floating voters' overall right-wing tendency determines how they vote, then Netanyahu stands to benefit.

But with many of these voters uninformed and uncommitted, they might decide to "go with the winner." If Peres has a clear lead in the polls on Election Day, therefore, the tides may turn in his favor.

The election is in the floating voters' hands, and nobody really knows what will happen. The truth is that many of the voters themselves won't know until May 29.