Likud Formally Opens Campaign, Charges Labor Soft on Palestinians

The Likud Party has formally launched its election campaign with a scathing attack on opposition leader Ehud Barak.

At a news conference Thursday unveiling their offensive for the May 17 election, party officials taunted the Labor Party leader to reveal his true agenda — what they described as total capitulation to the Palestinians.

Former Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh said Barak should call Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and tell him, “If I’m elected, don’t worry, we’ll revert to the concessions, we’ll resume the withdrawals.”

Naveh, who recently resigned his post to seek a spot on the Likud’s Knesset roster, read Arafat’s phone number during the televised news conference. This reportedly prompted a flood of calls to the Palestinian leader’s office.

Markedly absent from Likud’s first round of political campaigning were any references to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. The premier may face challenges from within his party for the Likud leadership.

Nor were there any mentions of any of the candidates other than Barak who are seeking to unseat the premier: Knesset members Dan Meridor and Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who left Likud to mount challenges of their own, and Amnon-Lipkin Shahak, the former army chief of staff who announced his candidacy this week.

Likud’s opening salvos came amid continuing dissension within the party over its direction and leadership.

Campaign organizers said that as part of their political strategy, they would focus on the differences between the Likud and Labor parties, a division analysts say has become increasingly blurred.

“We will underscore the different positions, sharpen the gaps in the different political and security approaches, and force Ehud Barak to do what he has not done for three years — reveal his true self,” said Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Likud Party’s campaign.

Meanwhile, Labor Party members denounced Likud’s opening volley as an attempt to distort what they called the real issue — Netanyahu’s total failure as a leader. Labor officials also accused Likud of trying to manipulate the 1999 campaign away from the issues of the day.

This week, Labor unveiled its campaign slogan — “Netanyahu: Too Many Lies for Too Long.”

Likud has a slogan of its own: “Barak Runs Away From the Truth,” a reference to allegations that he hurried from the scene of an army training accident when he served as chief of staff. Barak was later cleared in an investigation.

In a related development, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced Thursday he is backing Barak over Shahak.

Acknowledging that Shahak could draw votes from Barak, Peres said he believes that Barak nonetheless has the best chance of beating Netanyahu.

In a move seen as aimed at winning Peres’ support, Barak recently made a special point of recognizing the past contributions of Peres, whom he succeeded as Labor leader.

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