Debate Between Shamir and Rabin Ends in Dull Draw, As Might the Election

Israel’s somnolent election campaign entered the home stretch with a 28-minute televised debate Tuesday night between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin.

While Likud and Labor both claimed victory, instant polls published in several newspapers Wednesday suggested that neither man had overwhelmed the electorate although both succeeded, more or less, in getting their views across.

The debate between the leaders of the two major parties was supposed to be the high point of an election campaign characterized so far by public apathy.

With the elections less than a week away, Likud canceled a major campaign windup rally set for Saturday night in Tel Aviv. Party officials said it was decided the money would be better spent getting the voters out to the polls Tuesday.

But newspaper reports suggested that Likud feared the embarrassment of being unable to fill Tel Aviv’s vast Malchei Yisrael Square, where election rallies are held.

Such fears also apply to Labor and to the smaller parties, as well. All reported a lethargic response from the electorate as the campaign entered its final week.

Rabin, for example, drew slim crowds during a tour of Tel Aviv suburbs Tuesday. In the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo on Wednesday, his audience numbered about 40.

PUBLIC TUNING OUT

All of the parties, which committed large parts of their campaign war chests to a television ad blitz, have discovered that the public was tuning them out.

The majority of viewers, confronted by election commercials, switch to other channels. Many Israeli homes are now hooked into cable television, which offers them a broad choice of foreign news, sports, films and features.

During the Tuesday night debate, anchorman Nissim Mishal, a former Israel Television reporter who now heads Israel TV’s Second Channel, put questions to the two candidates which they had not seen in advance. They covered the major issues — defense, foreign policy, economics — and elicited no surprises from either man.

Media commentators generally felt that Shamir projected a more relaxed image, though his hands were seen to shake slightly. Rabin seemed more uptight and nervous.

But he was deft in dodging awkward questions, seemed more in control of the time at his disposal, and hammered home his points with greater eloquence.

Neither of them ruled out a Labor-Likud unity government, though Shamir said he was not keen since it had not worked well in the past, for which he blamed Labor.

Rabin said his goal is to win as many votes as possible for Labor.

Shamir was unbending on the issue of territorial concessions for peace. He declined an invitation to say he would relinquish the Gaza Strip. Eretz Yisrael is a small land and yielding any part of it is out of the question, he said.

Commentators agreed that the Likud leader has always been straightforward and consistent on that issue whether one agrees with him or not.

Rabin’s responses were ambiguous. He was loath to spell out territorial flexibility with respect to the Golan Heights. He ruled out Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders.

Nevertheless, he thought Israel should ultimately retain only Greater Jerusalem and the “confrontation lines” along the Jordan River.

Rabin thought the Palestinians have to be given a form of self-rule. He stressed that Israel’s supreme national interest is to keep the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the administered territories from becoming part of the body politic of the Jewish State.

“How can you make concessions?” Shamir asked him in a final comment. “Do you support a Palestinian state in the territories?”

Even Likud strategists felt this was a mistake on Shamir’s part, for it invited a firm and articulate response from Rabin explaining that he opposes and has always opposed a Palestinian state.

Political experts are wondering whether the apparent lack of interest in the campaign will translate into low voter turnout Tuesday.

Some say it could reflect a maturation of the Israeli electorate, which is able to make its political choices without benefit of campaign propaganda.

The dull campaign has had at least one positive effect. National Police Chief Ya’acov Terner reported this week that election-related violence has been lower in this campaign than in any other.

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