Less than a week before the elections, a large group of Israelis have yet to decide who to vote for. So here's a quick guide for dummies:
There are three candidates for the prime minister's job: Bibi Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, and, much less plausibly, Ehud Barak. The reasons for not voting for any of them are rather well balanced:
Bibi was an awful prime minster, thrown out of the job by the electorate after 3 tumultuous years by the largest margin ever. Barak, who beat him, was also awful, and was then booted out by an even greater margin, if you can believe it, after a mere 20 months. Bibi was later appointed minister of finance and did a spectacular job. Barak later also got a chance to redeem himself, as defense minister, and also did a good job. So they balance one another as dismal failures who then did great in lower jobs. Tzipi hasn't yet failed at prime minister, and her successes as a minister are bland. Nothing catastrophic, nothing spectacular.
What does all this tell us? That Bibi and Barak both learned from their mistakes, or that they function well only when someone else is the boss? If the second, let's vote for Tzipi, who will be the boss of Bibi and Ehud, for a perfect government. On the other hand, if she also needs first to fail at the top before doing fantastically one slot below, she's the last of the three we should be voting for.
So let's look at their lieutenants. Bibi has all sorts of nasties you don't want in the government, either because they're fanatics like Benny Begin, or incompetents like Limor Livnat. The same as Barak: does anyone in their right mind want Shelly Yechimowitz anywhere near a lever of power? As for Tzipi: her number two guy is Shaul Mofaz. The guy who swore he'd never leave Likud four hours before joining Kadima, the guy who proclaims we must bomb Iran but was the defense minister who allowed the IDF to fall apart to the degree it couldn't beat Hezbullah in 2006, though he forgot to tell the guy who replaced him that he wasn't handing over an operative army. That fellow, by the way, was Amir Peretz, another top guy in Barak's party: anyone want to vote for him? No? I didn't think so.
If we can't choose between the upper candidates, maybe we should choose between their policies? That might work, you'd think, and even be an entirely reasonable way of choosing. Alas, it isn't, for the simple reason that they're all the same. I suppose if you look hard enough you might find some light between their positions, but it isn't immediately clear what it might be. On economic issues they're all the same though Bibi has the advantage of knowing what he's talking about. On social issues they'll use the opposite rhetoric to do the exact same things, which in any case will be more of the same. On the use of force, whether against Iran or the Palestinains or Hezbullah, Bibi's rhetoric will be inflamed but it will all be hot air, while Barak will talk less but might wield force if he felt the need; Tzipi is an enigma. Meaning that if you're the type who likes calm rhetoric but uncalm actions, go for Barak; if you don't want any more Israeli military actions, vote Bibi. And if you think I'm talking through my hat, vote Tzipi.
Negotiations for peace: the important election on that issue already happened, in November 2008. There is no chance the Israelis and Palestinians will make peace on their own anytime soon (30 years). There is only a scant chance the Americans can cajole or convince them to. In a nutshell, if Obama tries to dictate anything a majority of Israelis can live with, no Israeli prime minister will resist him (though Bibi might be less gracious about it... and then again, he might not. Of the three he's the only one who's almost American himself). On the other hand, if Obama tries to dictate terms a majority of Israelis can't accept, any Israeli prime minister will defy him: yes, even Obama.
A friend of mine always decides how to vote by the last opinion polls before the election, when he sees who's going to be the largest party and he votes for them so they can build a stable coalition. In most cases this doesn't work, and our governing coalitions fall apart sooner or later, mostly sooner. This time, with the gap between Likud and Kadima narrowing by the day (because Likud is hemorrhaging to Lieberman's Yisrael Beitaynu), it's hard to know who'll have the largest party. So that doesn't help either.
As a matter of fact, it raises the obvious question, why not vote for Ivet Lieberman, the Russian strongman who may yet come out third, ahead of Barak's Labor? But that raises the question, why yes vote for him? What does he offer? Buckets and buckets of populistic right-wing rhetoric, if you like that stuff; and a record of a highly pragmatic power-junky that could easily override the rhetoric if it suits Ivet. (Remember the year he spent in Olmert's coalition?) Lieberman has a reputation for getting things done, which means he might be your man if you're tired of the terminal inefficiancy of much of our ruling bureacracy. He's also probably Olmert-league corrupt, with the legal bayhounds slowly getting nearer after years of trying - unless you prefer the conspiracy theory about the prosecution that takes down whomever they don't like. But if so, don't vote for Ivet, because they're about to get him.
If you want you can vote for one of three Arab parties. Since even most Arabs don't, they're small and irrelevant for policy-making of any sort. People in the know tell me they do nothing for their constituents, preferring rhetorical grandstanding. It's probably true, and would explain why no more than a third of Israel's Arabs vote for them. You can vote for the Haredi parties; actually, if you're Haredi you really don't have much alternitive since these folks exist to bring home the pork... um, sorry about that. Then there are three or four settler parties of various hues. I'm a politics junkie, but even I have long since lost track of which is which and what the differences are between them; their representatives have this habit of switching from one party to the other each time new elections seem likely, and in all of the periods in between. I expect two of them will make it in to the Knesset, and they'll have about as many MKs as the Arabs. Unlike the Arabs, they are hugely adept at manipulating the system for their purposes, similar to the Haredi parties, and mostly unpopular with everyone else, also similar to the Haredis.
I hate to say this, since I'm such a staunch Zionist and fevent believer in the utter necessity of a Jewish State, but apparently the government of the Jewish State isn't very important. It's nice to have, yes; and we enjoy changing it every three years or so, certainly; but the important parts happen on the levels a bit below the top of the societal pyramid.