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Behind the Headlines Election Fever Running High

Election fever is running high in Israel and excitement is rising as the country’s numerous political parties and factions–some old, some new-born–prepare to put their fortunes on the line when the voters go to the polls May 17. As in all modern democracies, there has been a plethora of public opinion polls–politicians and voters alike, it would seem, cannot wait for the returns to be in. They want to know, months in advance, what the likely outcome will be.

But different polls tell different stories. On one thing, however, they all seem to agree: at this point, slightly less than three months before election day, up to 50 percent of the voters have not decided which party to support.

They are, instead, waiting and watching to see how the Labor Party will meet the challenges ahead; the efforts of Likud to modify its hawkish image; the birth pangs of Prof. Yigal Yadin’s new Democratic Movement for Change; the threatened disintegration of the Independent Liberal Party; the personal conflicts within the National Religious Party; the intensive but as yet fruitless negotiations among the left-of-center groups to establish a strong socialist party.

The voting public also sees nightly on television, high-ranking military officers and senior civil servants announcing their resignations and proclaiming their devotion to one or another political faction. All of them would like to sit in the next Knesset. But the law requires them to resign from State service at least 100 days before the elections.

If the polls show one thing it is that the electorate anticipates great changes on May 17 and the beginning of a new political era for Israel. But past experience in politics shows that such expectations may be an illusion. The power structure in Israel is not likely to change.

FOREIGN POLICY ELEMENT

One important element to be considered is that foreign policy developments can influence the national atmosphere before election day. Premier Yitzhak Rabin will visit Washington early in March. Efforts here and in the U.S. to resume peace talks before the end of this year may have a considerable impact on who the voters favor in May.

Moreover, all but the most naive voters realize that the various parties are making an all-out effort to gain support from every segment and in so doing frequently abandon their stated principles and declared goals. The Labor Party, for example, does not dare to present a clearly dovish approach that some of its leaders would favor. It prefers a watered-down ideology and vague formulations that will satisfy both the doves and hawks in its ranks.

Likud, trying to muster the widest possible support, is playing down its hard line platform on the future of the administered territories. Some elements in Likud would like to retire veteran Herut leader Menachem Beigin whose uncompromising rhetoric has frightened voters in the past.

The Democratic Movement for Change has benefited from the disillusionment of both hawks and doves with the major parties and has become a political haven for both. But in order to keep that uneasy coalition together until election day it has remained vague and non-committal as to its policies.

The NRP was on the verge of a split when former Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Raphael announced he would quit the party if he was given a low place on its election list that would prevent his winning a Knesset seat. According to the latest reports, however, Raphael is once more back in the bosom of his party.

SPLINTER FACTIONS ABOUND

There are many leftist splinter factions which are trying to coalesce into a single powerful socialist bloc. But while their ideological differences may be reconcilable their personality conflicts apparently are not.

It is too early to say whether the mushrooming of new political factions–one seems to be born every day–will seriously affect the established parties. In any event. Israelis have a hard time keeping up with them. In the past 24 hours alone, three new lists announced themselves as contenders for Knesset seats.

One is a Womens List marching under a feminist banner. Another is a loosely organized coalition of wives, mothers and parents of soldiers who think a new war can be prevented only if Israel refuses to withdraw from the administered territories. The third represents 30,000 Holocaust survivors who demand better treatment and higher compensation from the government.

A fourth list has also emerged, headed by Yehoshua Peretz, former boss of the Ashdod port workers. He announced, however, that he would link up with the Black Panthers to form a coalition that speaks for the underprivileged.

ILP IN TROUBLE

Meanwhile, the Independent Liberal Party which has been a partner in many Labor-led coalition governments, seems to be in its death throes. The ILP represents middle-class Israelis who came here from Eastern and Central Europe before and after the State was founded. It follows a moderate course in foreign affairs, favors far-reaching territorial concessions in exchange for peace and major domestic reforms. It has never had more than a half dozen seats in parliament and holds only four in the present Knesset.

The ILP is trapped in a constitutional quirk. Its two leaders, Moshe Kol and Gideon Hausner, resigned from the Rabin Cabinet last year because the Premier failed to respond to their demands for internal changes. But the Supreme Court ruled their resignations invalid since they became effective only after the Rabin government was transformed into a care-taker regime from which ministers are barred by law from quitting.

Meanwhile, another ILP leader, Hillel Seidel, resigned from the party and joined Likud. He is trying to influence other party members to do the same on the grounds that ILP programs can be realized only within the framework of a major party. But Seidel, whose hawkish views were always closer to Likud than the ILP, is regarded as a maverick in Israeli politics.

In recent weeks, the ILP has sought to form a coalition with Yadin’s group, with Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights Party and even with Gen. Ariel Sharon’s Shlomzion faction, But all of these attempts have foundered on ideological or personality grounds.

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