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ISRAEL

A Campaign That Blurs Political Differences

May 26, 1996|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman, a journalist for the Daily Ha'aretz specializes in intelligence and terror affairs. He is co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance (Hyperion)

TEL AVIV — Three days before Israel's national elections, the country's political condition seems right out of George Orwell's "1984." The language and roles adopted by the country's two major parties are virtual doublespeak.

In the past, the left-of-center Labor Party has often collided with the Jewish settlers on the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Led by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, its government has called them "extremists" and "obstacles to peace." But now that same Labor government emphasizes the fact that during its four-year tenure, and despite peace accords with Jordan and the Palestinians, the Jewish population on the West Bank has increased by 40%. Yossi Beilin, a Cabinet minister and one of Prime Minister Shimon Peres' confidants, even promised settler leaders that if Peres were reelected, no settlements would be dismantled or evacuated.

The right-wing Likud opposition, on the other hand, has categorically rejected peace agreements for years. Its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has characterized them as a "disaster" for Israel's security and future existence. Now, that same Likud acknowledges the validity of peace and promises the electorate even better peace deals.

This blurring of ideology and swapping of political roles are but two elements of the general confusion created by the two major campaigns. No less surprising is the tone of the contest. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been renowned for the emotional intensity, ideological rivalry and occasional political violence of its election campaigns. Most of the political agitation was carried out in the streets by party volunteers. The climax of campaigns was always huge public rallies and passionate speeches delivered by the candidates in town squares.

By contrast, the current campaign has been tame, emotionless and mostly quiet. Most party activists are paid. There have been no public gatherings. The focal point of political propaganda is television. The colors--blue and white--and slogans--emphasizing "peace" and promising "security"--used by Labor and Likud for their political ads are virtually identical. "A tourist," observes Glosephe Panocchia, the Italian ambassador to Israel, "would not notice the difference between Labor and Likud."

Rarely have campaign theatrics turned into poisonous and heated debate. Negative campaigning bears the fingerprints of Arthur Finklestein, an American publicist and political strategist who worked for New York Gov. George Pataki and was recently hired by Netanyahu.

The flowering indifference of Israelis to the campaign is traceable, in part, to the political, social, economic and cultural changes of the last decade. Peace has brought prosperity. With an annual growth rate of 7%, Israel's economy is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Israelis, it seems, have entered a new era, in which there is little room for past or outdated ideologies. They are tired of political skirmishes. They care more about their cars, homes, work, health and the education of their children than who runs the next government.

Four million Israelis, out of a total population of 5.5 million, are eligible to vote for 21 parties. More than half of these parties are marginal or esoteric; most will not cross the 1.5% threshold (40,000 votes) needed to be eligible to win seats. Opinion polls predict that only nine parties will gain seats in the Knesset.

These can be broken down into five major political blocs: 1) Labor and the left-of-center Meretz movement are expected, according to the latest polls, to win 51-53 seats in the Knesset; 2) parties representing Israeli Arabs stand to pick up six to seven; 3) the three traditional religious parties could net 15-18; 4) two new centrist parties could gather five, and 5) the Likud and one or two of its satellites will get, based on the same polls, 42-44 seats.

Judging from past experience, such a political formation would challenge Peres' skill at forming a solid coalition. But recently adopted regulations will make that task much easier for the winner. This is because Israelis will be voting not only for their party of choice but also for prime minister.

According to all opinion polls, Peres is leading Netanyahu by a margin of 4%-7%. It's a solid enough lead for Peres to win and form the next coalition government, likely to be composed of Meretz, the two Arab lists, one, maybe two centrist parties and one or two religious parties. This scenario is threatened, however, by three uncertainties.

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