Tel Aviv (May. 31)
With the balloting just 4 1/2 weeks away, Premier Menachem Begin’s Likud alliance is conducting a hard-hitting re-election campaign, its confidence buoyed by public opinion polls which show it to have come from far behind to run neck-and-neck with the opposition Labor Alignment.
Its full-page press advertisements say that “peace is only the beginning” and go on to promise that the party will prepare the country for the 1990s.
As the present coalition ends its four-year term of office its major component, the Likud alliance, is really a misnomer. It is totally dominated by Herut which, in turn, is completely dominated by Begin. If he had decided, for any reason, not to run in the elections, Likud’s chances of success in the June 30 voting would be far slimmer.
Apart from Herut (Freedom Movement, as it is officially called) the other components of the “alliance” have declined in importance and in policymaking or have all but disappeared. Ariel Sharon’s Shlomzion Party, which stood for election in 1977 as a separate entity disappeared within the Herut fold immediately after his entry into the Cabinet.
The La’am (Towards the People) faction, which consists of parts of the Free Center Party, the StateList, the Greater Land of Israel Movement and Ahdut (Unity) Party, a splinter of the old Indpendent Liberal Party which joined Likud in 1977, have little support today though all are demanding representation on the Knesset list.
The few members of the former Rafi faction have left Likud, largely to join Moshe Dayan’s new Telem party. Apart from Herut, the Liberal Party remains the only large and politically significant element to balance Herut in the Likud alliance.
AMERICAN STYLE CAMPAIGN
The Likud election campaign, long in preparation, uses hard-hitting American methods which were studied closely by a young and enthusiastic team. It concentrates on the Party’s undisputed major achievement in its four years in office — the peace treaty with Egypt. Its second major claim is massive Jewish settlement on the West Bank which it claims has prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state at any time in the future.
While admitting that it has made “some mistakes” during the past four years, they are attributed to inexperience after 30 years in opposition. According to Likud, its shortcomings have been corrected by four years of on-the-job training, and the “bad inheritance” passed on by former Labor governments, has been overcome.
The names of two men largely responsible for the peace negotiations — Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman–are conspicuously absent from the Likud election propaganda. Both have left the Administration. Also glossed over is the fact that the treaty was ratified by the Knesset only thanks to the votes of the opposition; many Likud members voted against it or abstained.
Likud spokesmen appear sensitive to opposition criticism that of the 144 new settlements which the Likud claims to have added to the map, fewer than a dozen are on the West Bank, with a population of only a few thousand. Likud is competing with the National Religious Party (NRP) for the credit of ensuring Israel’s hold over the “Biblical Land of Israel.”
Indeed, one of the most successful publicity projects undertaken by Likud has been Sharon’s “We Are On The Map” campaign — full-page newspaper ads showing maps of the 144 new settlements, and organized bus tours (free or almost free)–”to let the people see for themselves what we have done,” as Sharon puts it.
The trips are confined to a half-dozen Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) settlements. Sharon said when he inaugurated the tours that he hoped 100,000 people would visit the area before election day. With four weeks still to go, over 200,000 have taken advantage of the cheap outing.
Likud propagandists are hampered however by the absence of any party platform planks other than the political (peace treaty) one; and even that contains many issues not clearly defined. Social and economic plans, where Likud is weakest, have yet to be fully formulated.
The main thrust of the political plank is the promise to continue implementation of the normalization process with Egypt under the peace treaty, with indications that the party will be prepared to reconsider final withdrawal from Sinai next year if a multinational force to police Sinai is not established and in position by the scheduled final withdrawal date, in April, 1982.
Begin will certainly continue to hammer home what he likes to term the identity of thought and interests between Israel and the U.S. under the Reagan Administration. Critics point out, however, that many of his protestations of sweet harmony are somewhat one-sided and far more fervent on Begin’s side than on Reagan’s.
Likud advertisements stress that its administration has managed to hold unemployment down in Israel while it is rising throughout the world. In this way they try to divert attention from Israel’s inflation rate of 133 percent last year, the highest in the world. It has been running at the same rate so far this year.
Party spokesmen claim this is due to the errors of the previous Labor administration. Ignoring recent Central Bureau of Statistics figures that show a decline in real earning power of some nine percent last year, they insist that the public has never been as well off as now. This may be true but only of the largely self-employed middle class and senior officials.
To enhance the impression of prosperity and well-being, Finance Minister Yoram Aridor gained widespread support by reducing sales taxes — and thus the purchase price — on a wide range of consumer goods including color televisions, cars, air conditioners and washing machines. But the massive 10.7 percent rise in the cost-of-living index for April came as a severe blow to the Treasury, which had hoped to show that the lower prices reduced the rate of inflation.
BEGIN’S POSSIBLE SUCCESSOR
A month before the elections, the value of the Israeli Shekel was down to one-tenth of its value when the Likud took office four years ago and the cost-of-living index was up tenfold.
By mid-May, two weeks before the legal date for presentation of election dates, the various components of Likud had chosen their candidates, but without yet placing them in order of precedence, an opera-
tion which caused internal disputes in the Likud as it had for Labor. The only prominent new name in Likud (and Herut) is that of Yaacov Meridor, Begin’s old comrade-in-arms who he recalled to political life after two decades in business.
The voting for Herut candidates surprised Begin who clearly hopes that Meridor will be his successor if he has to step down. Meridor came only seventh on the list. Begin himself, who originally said he would retire at age 70, in two years time, now says he will complete a full term, if his health permits.
Meridor is one of the “fighting family” which forms the core of Herut. Begin loves to stress the “fighters” of the dissident Etzel (Irgun) and Stern Gang hinting that it was they who brought about the Jewish State, rather than the much larger Labor-led underground Hagana which Begin never mentions by name.
Although rarely alluded to, Begin’s delicate health is of considerable concern to party members. After suffering two heart attacks and a minor stroke, Begin ranges from periods of quiet and apparent depression to hyper-activity and ebulience. He said recently that the anti-coagulant medication he takes is not the cause of this behavior.
By the end of May, it was still unclear what effect the Syrian missile crisis and Begin’s handling of it–including his disclosure of secret orders to bomb the missile sites — will have on the election campaign. If the missiles are withdrawn without war, Begin’s continuing “peace efforts” will figure large in last-minute campaign propaganda. If war were to come, the elections would probably be postponed. Political analysts and commentators are pointing out that it would be the first Israeli war about which many Israelis would have doubts and might feel that the fighting could have been avoided.