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Parties Fighting Tough Battles in Israel’s Municipal Elections

The mayoral campaigns in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have been among the toughest — some would say the dirtiest — in recent memory, with the parties flinging mud at each other’s candidates with gusto.

In Tel Aviv, former Likud party Cabinet minister Ronni Milo looks set to defeat Knesset member Avigdor Kahalani of the Labor Party.

And in Jerusalem, the long-serving mayor, Teddy Kollek, has been in a hotly contested race with another former Likud minister, Ehud Olmert.

Neither race has been conducted in what might be called a gentlemanly fashion.

Flyers being distributed anonymously in Tel Aviv have cast sexual aspersions on Milo, while in Jerusalem the focus of Olmert’s campaign has been on Kollek’s advanced age.

The implication is that Kollek, who is 82 and has been mayor since 1965, is too old to serve any longer.

Israelis are going to the polls this week to elect mayors and members of municipal councils across the country.

The elections, though primarily focused on local issues, are seen as something of a test of the Labor government’s standing in the wake of the breakthrough self-rule agreement Israel signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Sept. 13 in Washington.

Indeed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other leading government figures have explicitly urged voters to consider the elections as a referendum on the government’s peace initiatives.

But that tactic, according to some pundits here, could well backfire.

Of the three major cities here, only in Haifa is a Labor victory virtually guaranteed. Labor’s candidate, reserve Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, is expected to defeat easily a Likud challenge in this traditional Labor stronghold.

MAYORAL RACE A MATTER OF PERSONALITY

In Israel’s municipal elections, the voter casts two ballots: one for mayor and one for city council.

This enables people to split their vote, which renders the races for mayors very much a matter of personalities, while the council races are run on party lines.

Milo, for instance, knowing that Tel Aviv includes a strong pro-Labor population, insists that he is not so much a Likud candidate but more of a “supra-party” candidate.

This approach seems to have been effective: An opinion poll over the weekend showed 30 percent of the city’s Labor voters giving Milo their support.

Milo’s recent defiance of Likud in the Knesset, during which he abstained rather than vote against the self-rule accord signed with the Palestinians, clearly stood him in good stead for the mayor’s race.

Interestingly, Tel Aviv’s incumbent mayor, Shlomo Lahat, is another Likud maverick who strayed far to the left of his party’s ideological orthodoxy.

Lahat advocated talks with the PLO long before this became the Labor Party’s official policy.

Lahat is backing Milo — as is the leftist former Knesset member Meir Pa’il, who argues, in large advertisements published by the Milo campaign, that the Tel Aviv election should focus on local, not national, issues.

But Rabin, campaigning vigorously for Kahalani last week, told voters that Milo “is Likud” and “personally directed the Likud’s vicious campaign against me.”

“I know them both,” Rabin said in campaign appearances. “Believe me, vote for Kahalani.”

LIKUD EXPECTING SETBACKS

Likud, barely a year after its defeat in the national elections, openly expects to suffer some setbacks in the municipal elections.

Likud leaders say this is a predictable trend for the opposition party.

But if Milo and Olmert win, it would go a long way to counterbalance any Likud losses in less high-profile races.

To win a mayoral race, a candidate needs 40 percent on the first ballot to avoid a runoff election.

In Jerusalem, Olmert has been trying desperately to persuade the fervently religious Agudat Yisrael and Shas parties to withdraw their mayoral candidates, and he has been urging their supporters to vote for him.

Kollek, backed by Rabin and by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, have been working just as assiduously to persuade the two parties to stay in the ring.

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