Israeli voters go to the polls next Tuesday to elect a new parliament. Opinion polls during the past several weeks have fluctuated, but it appears the Likud party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will win, but not gain enough seats to avoid a coalition government.
It has been a campaign highlighted by financial scandal and party-infighting, but it has produced few concrete ideas on how to solve the serious problems facing Israel.
Ariel Sharon's right-of-center Likud Party has been beset by scandal, including accusations he accepted a $1.5 million loan from a friend to pay back illegal campaign contributions from 1999. The scandal cost the party support. A month ago, Likud was projected to win more than 40-seats in the 120-member legislature. It is now estimated to win just over 30 seats.
Despite those troubles, Likud is still well ahead of its main rival, the left-of-center Labor Party and its candidate Amram Mitzna. Labor's prospects have fluctuated wildly. Polls showed a surge in popularity when the Likud scandal broke, but then plummeted as the party disintegrated into political infighting.
With so much attention on these issues, there is less focus on what polls say are the things Israelis care about most: security and the economy.
Akiva Eldar is a political commentator for the Ha'aretz newspaper. He says Israeli voters are concerned about one big issue, peace with the Palestinians. He cites polls showing 70 percent of Israelis favor the creation of a Palestinian state and support the removal of most of the Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
But polls also show they will vote for Likud and other right-wing parties which do not favor any such agreement with the Palestinians. Mr. Eldar says there is a reason for this seeming contradiction.
"Basically, the Israeli public is confused," he said. "They lost their trust in the Palestinians, in the partners, and in the hope for peace (and they lost their trust in) those people who were not able to deliver the goods, namely the Labor party and the parties on the left. ...The average Israeli is floating between his desire to see an end to the conflict and his concern, his anxiety, from the risk that it will not work and he will end up with no peace and no territories."
Prime Minister Sharon came to power two years ago promising to halt Palestinian attacks against Israel and to provide security for Israelis; neither of which he has been able to accomplish. Mr. Eldar says Israelis are fully aware of this, but seem willing to give him another chance, no matter what his shortcomings may be.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the campaign has been the rising popularity of the Shinui Party. Its leader, Tommy Lapid, seems set on curbing the power of the parties of the religious right, with his ultimate goal being to get them out of the government entirely.
Shinui is enjoying its best year since it was founded in 1974 and stands to end up as the third-largest party in the legislature. It could become "kingmaker" if, as expected, whoever wins has to form a coalition government.
There are 29 parties on the ballot, ranging from ultra-orthodox and ultra-nationalists on the right, through the Arab Communist Party and the pro-marijuana party on the left.
Yoram Peri is head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University. He says the kaleidoscope of political parties mirrors what is happening in Israeli society: it is becoming increasingly fragmented. Professor Peri says people are voting along what he calls "tribal" lines.
"During the 90s the structure of Israeli society has changed because of the huge wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union," he said. "Israeli society has emerged with a new structure based on identity politics. Namely, people identify themselves with a particular cultural group. For example, the Israeli-Arabs or Israeli-Palestinians. The same applies to the Russians. The result is that you have clearly defined groups. The political affiliation resembles the cultural affiliation."
Professor Peri says this "fragmentation" will be a fact of life in Israel for some time and will show itself in next Tuesday's election.
Since no party is expected to get an outright majority, a coalition is all but inevitable. With Likud expected to get the largest number of overall votes, it will likely be Mr. Sharon's task to form a coalition government.
Labor leader Mitzna has vowed not to join a Sharon coalition, and Shinui's Tommy Lapid refuses to join a government that has any representatives of ultra-orthodox religious parties.
Political commentator Akiva Eldar says he believes this next government will not last long. He says Mr. Sharon will face too many pressures and not just a likely police investigation into possible financial misconduct.
"I believe that we are looking at new elections in the next year or so because the police inquiries and American and European pressure," he said. "Especially European pressure on Sharon regarding the roadmap to the peace process, and on the other hand, Sharon's hands will be tied, both by the police and his colleagues from the Likud and the extreme right."
Continued political uncertainty appears the most likely outcome of this election and Israeli voters seem to know that. When they talk about whom they will vote for, most do so with little enthusiasm and many of them say they simply do not yet know.