TEL AVIV — According to Israeli political folklore, cab drivers are the best public opinion pollsters.
They're the ones with their ear to the ground, they detect the subtle trends and rumblings that professors and political scientists miss. If you want to know how the election is going to turn out, goes the common wisdom, ask the cabbies.
This notion seems to have arisen in the 1977 election, when cab drivers picked Menachem Begin against all expert opinion, and Begin won. The cabbies' reputation was enhanced in 1981, when they again correctly put their money on Begin against all the odds. Whether their predictions were objective or subjective, whether most cabbies to this day carry a torch for Begin and are "Likud in their blood" — nobody knows.
In conversations about the May 29 election, most drivers interviewed sounded fairly dispassionate. They work in Herzliya, Rishon Lezion and near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station — in the Israeli heartland, where nearly all demographic types get in and out of cabs, where neither Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Labor nor his rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, holds complete sway.
One after another, the cabbies testified to an unprecedented apathy among Israelis.
"There's much less enthusiasm now. Everybody is stuck in his opinion and nothing can change them. All this talk about the `floating voters' — I haven't seen any of them," said Shabtai Birman, who's been driving for 17 years.
"People are tired from all the troubles, all the terror victims," said Yoske, a 15-year veteran cabbie.
"Nobody's interested anymore. They're disgusted at all these campaign posters and stickers everywhere they look. They don't pay any attention to them. They say the politicians wasted the people's money putting them up. They think all the politicians are liars anyway," said Marek, who has about 25 years on the road.
But Tzion Tzadok, who's been driving since 1974, says it isn't really indifference he's hearing but latent anxiety. "There's a quiet before the storm. People feel a lot of uncertainty about the future of the country, no matter who is elected."
Birman, standing at the cab stand in Herzliya with Tzadok, said this anxiety, especially of late, is expressed in a rising number of people taking taxis. "People are very tense. They know there's going to be a terror attack before the elections, so they're not riding in buses."
How will all this translate on Election Day? "Things feel pretty even now," said Birman. "For now it's a tie," said Tzadok.
Reuven Maimon, a 30-year veteran driver in Herzliya, agreed. From what he was hearing, Peres and Netanyahu seemed to be running neck and neck. Like nearly every other cabbie interviewed, Maimon said he could guess a passenger's political preferences before he even opened his mouth.
"If he seems bitter, like he hasn't gotten anywhere in life, then he's Likud. If he looks poor, like he lives in a bad neighborhood, he's Likud. If he looks well off, if he's wearing a jacket and tie, if he's an executive at a big company, then he's Labor. For every 10 passengers you take to or from Ben-Gurion Airport, seven of them are voting Peres, if not eight," Maimon said.
More and more people are looking prosperous, and they're voting their pocketbooks, said Meir Reginiano, a 30-year veteran driver near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. "The economy is good. Myself, I'm voting Likud, but it looks like the election is going to Peres."
At the Rishon Lezion taxi stand, the dispatcher's cap read, "Netanyahu — Making Secure Peace." His sentiments were shared by nearly all the drivers waiting for fares.
"Peres is an old man. It's time for him to go home," said the dispatcher.
"You have to give it to the Arabs on the head. That's the only thing they understand," said Tzion Mordechai, a 7-year veteran driver.
"Everybody's Likud," was the oft-repeated observation.
"Everybody," repeated Mordechai. "People are tired of this government, they want a change."
Are they saying Netanyahu's going to get 100 percent of the vote?
"Not 100 percent, maybe not even 90 percent, but 80 percent," Mordechai predicted.
A driver named David, a 15-year veteran, dissented. "Most people are for Peres. And I'm talking about average, common people," he said.
"They're afraid of the Likud's image, that the Likud is going to go back into Gaza. They say Bibi [Netanyahu] isn't experienced enough for the job. I say Peres will win by 10 percent or even more."
While these cabbies offer political prognostications freely, they say it's the passengers who start political debates in the cab.
"It starts with the radio," Tzadok said. "The news is on, and something happens, and then boom — everybody comes in with their opinions."
Not all drivers were so forthcoming. "I don't discuss politics. You want to discuss pretty girls, fine, but no politics," said a Herzliya driver.
"I don't talk about the election, I don't care," said a Rishon Lezion driver. And the passengers? "Nobody talks, nobody cares," he said.
Add up the cabbies' findings and you get voter indifference, fear of terror, satisfaction with the economy, and a very close race, tipping slightly so far for Peres.
Professional pollsters have been interviewing thousands of Israelis, analyzing their answers and reporting these very same results now for weeks.
"We can smell the way things are going," Maimon said, touching his nose.