The reason is that this time around, Benjamin Netanyahu is up against the electoral wiles of James Carville, the U.S. pollster who got Bill Clinton into office by bushwhacking a foreign-policy president with a deluge of domestic grievances and is now trying to do the same for Labor party leader Ehud Barak. Netanyahu had planned to scare up a majority by retreading his 1996 strategy of invoking a Palestinian menace -- his campaign is even running TV ads filled with gruesome footage from pre-1996 suicide bombings -- but voters don't appear to be taking the bait. Israelis have become accustomed, since the Oslo Agreement came unstuck in 1996, to a permanent state of low-level crisis in their relations with the Palestinians. "For the voters, this election is not about the peace process," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. And that's left Netanyahu flailing.
While the prime minister struggles to ignite his campaign, Barak, under Carville's tutelage, is making hay of a hot-button domestic issue. "Barak has found his wedge in the seething resentment of Israel's huge Russian immigrant population," says Beyer. "Israel's big parties each have their long-established voting bloc, and those tend to cancel each other out. But although there are some core voters for the left and the right among the Russians, the majority can still go either way."