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National Agenda : Old Faces, Weary Voters : Israel's Yitzhak Shamir is being challenged by longtime rival Yitzhak Rabin. Neither seems to be a channel for change.

June 16, 1992|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEERSHEBA, Israel — A look at the kickoff television election ads for the ruling Likud Party and the Labor Party, its main challenger, might lead viewers to believe that Israel is mainly a garden of ruddy farmers happily toiling in a generous land.

Likud's promo shows a strong-armed worker baling golden hay on a well-manicured field. Oddly enough, so does the ad for Labor. Its farmer looks remarkably like the Likud's, all forearms and heavily tanned.

The twin images of rural bliss are meant to evoke one of the basic national symbols of Israel: the new Jewish Man at home with the land. Never mind that these days, a farmhand is just as likely to be an underpaid Palestinian day worker as an Israeli, or that masses of Russian newcomers have no intention of shoveling manure on some kibbutz. You would never guess that Israel is rapidly moving toward a high-tech economy encased in air-conditioned laboratory complexes.

If there is anything that marks the uninspiring campaign leading up to the June 23 election, it is the reluctance of the leading candidates to confront the problems and prospects of Israel: a slowing economy and unemployment--in a consumer culture--and a massive influx of new citizens from Russia. Parties prefer to make hay with symbols such as the joyful farmer--not to mention a heavy use of the blue-and-white Israeli flag. The voters are confronted with two old warhorses of Israeli politics--Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the right-wing Likud and longtime political and military fixture Yitzhak Rabin of the left-of-center Labor--in a battle of nearly spent ideologies.

The main difference between the two men centers on how to treat the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 1.7 million Palestinians who live there. Shamir has rapidly expanded Jewish settlement there and rejects the so-called land-for-peace formula. Rabin is willing to give up land--a position that pleases Washington and could free up more U.S. economic aid.

Although the election outcome will have an impact on U.S.-Israeli relations and, probably, the Middle East peace talks, the average Israeli voter finds the subject tedious. "The choice used to be whether to talk peace or not. Now, Israel is talking peace, and Israelis want to get onto other subjects," said Avishai Margalit, a leading political scientist.

There is an unsettled quality to the election season that Israel shares with some other democracies in the Western world. In the United States, voters are flirting with upending the traditional role of political parties in a search for new and decisive answers. Voters in France, Germany and Italy have also signaled dissatisfaction with parties in power.

In all the cases, there is dismay with the way politicians address the new post-Cold War environment.

Shamir, 76, has been prime minister longer than anyone other than founding father David Ben-Gurion. He appears blind to the swirl of events around him and focuses almost exclusively on building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a preoccupation that forms the basis of his party's decades-old ideology.

Challenger Rabin, 70, was prime minister in the mid-1970s and has been a fixture in Israeli political and military life for 40 years. While expressing the need to get on with new business, his party is caught in a tangle of special interests that hark back to Israel's socialist days.

The choice has left Israeli voters with attitudes ranging from boredom to hostility. They have largely switched off the TV ads. Parties are canceling rallies for lack of attendance. When crowds do show up, they have sometimes been surly. Shamir visited Beersheba a few weeks ago and was met by a hostile crowd in what has been a safe, working-class Likud district.

Beersheba is beset by high unemployment among its large North African population. Hundreds of houses have been built for Russian immigrants, but they stand empty because the newcomers don't want to live there permanently. A temporary camp of mobile homes is slowly turning into a slum.

When Rabin visited Beersheba later, the greeting was more subdued, although a Likud committee called the "Young Guards" sent a group of hecklers to blow whistles while Rabin spoke. Throughout much of the campaign, Rabin has benefited from standing in as a symbol for change, but not everyone is convinced.

"Do you have a job?" he asked a passer-by in a shopping mall.

"No, and I doubt you can do anything about it," came the reply.

The disaffection is deep and widespread, even within the main parties. "The great issue (before Israel) is political and economic reform. Unfortunately, this campaign is not fought on those issues," argued Binyamin Netanyahu, a Likudnik, frequent spokesman for the government and an aspirant to the prime minister's post.

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