News Analysis: Israeli Election Season Promises Jingles, Gimmicks Along with Issues

Boring it won’t be. With five candidates likely to run for prime minister and some 33 parties running for the Knesset, Israel’s upcoming elections will be a veritable jamboree of jingles, gimmicks and slick copy-writing.

So certain is the outlook for lively color and top-flight entertainment as the campaign heats up that the country barely bothered to grieve this week at the news that Rabbi Yosef Ba-Gad, one of the most entertaining figures in Israeli politics, is expected to be disqualified from the prime ministerial race.

Ba-Gad, a legislator from the religious far right in the 1992-1996 Knesset whose creative gimmickery gave him lots of air time, had the air taken out of his latest bid for national eminence when the Central Elections Committee found that many of the signatures on the petitions supporting his candidacy were forged and recommended that he be disqualified.

Every candidate for prime minister needs to have the names and addresses of 50,000 citizens on the petitions, or, as an alternative, have the backing of 10 Knesset members.

“At 23,000 forgeries, we stopped counting,” an Elections Committee official said Sunday of Ba-Gad’s petitions.

Another prime ministerial hopeful who professed shock and outrage last week at the discovery of rampant improprieties in his list of 50,000 names was Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, leader of the Herut Party.

In desperate straits as the midnight deadline for submitting the petitions loomed on March 30, Begin was eventually bailed out by the five Knesset members of the immigrant-rights party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah. They, together with some of the legislators on Begin’s list, a grouping of the rightist Herut, Moledet and Tekuma parties, provided the requisite 10 Knesset supporters and saved his candidacy.

Interestingly, Rehavam Ze’evi, the Moledet leader and No. 2 man on Begin’s joint list, refused to sign. Ze’evi opposes Begin’s run for premier, believing it would weaken the re-election chances of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interestingly, too, the Knesset corridors were full of rumors that a last- minute intercession by Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, had persuaded Sharansky and his party to come forward and sign for Begin.

Barak, according to these rumors, is anxious to keep Begin in the ring, thus sapping Netanyahu’s potential strength in the May 17 first round of voting. If none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is scheduled to be held June 1.

Begin, always seen as the “Mister Clean” of Israeli politics, appeared mortified at his brush with impropriety.

“We shall investigate this without letup,” he vowed.

Observers suggested that Moledet loyalists may have been behind the spoiled petitions, signing false and duplicate names in a deliberate effort to derail Begin’s candidacy.

According to the polls, Begin can look forward to picking up some 4 percent of the vote in the first round. This would place him fourth behind Netanyahu, Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, leader of the Center Party, known in Israel by its Hebrew name, Mercaz.

Fifth and last, in the present ratings, is legislator Azmi Beshara, the first Israeli Arab to run for premier.

He, like Begin, faces strong opposition to his candidacy within his own camp.

Arab leaders from both the Hadash Communist bloc and the Islamic bloc — the two main movements in the Arab sector — accuse Beshara of unbridled egotism, saying he will weaken Barak’s candidacy and in the process hurt the entire Israeli Arab community.

Political observers, working feverishly to decipher this complex situation, say Beshara is intent on helping Mordechai by trying to siphon Arab votes from Barak in the first round and thereby increase Mordechai’s chances of getting through to the runoff.

Mordechai is said to be the preferred candidate in Palestinian Authority circles, mainly because of his important role in bringing the negotiations surrounding the Wye accord to their successful conclusion last October — and because of his subsequent falling out with Netanyahu when the accord ran aground late last year.

Beshara, for his part, says he will not allow his candidacy to prejudice in any way the prospects for bringing Netanyahu down.

He says that if Mordechai quits, he will also quit — in order to afford Barak a better chance of getting 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

Meanwhile, the Elections Committee is now examining the credentials of the 33 parties and would-be parties that signed up by last week’s registration deadline to run in May.

The number, which broke the previous record of 27, could change as the committee makes a final winnowing of the list before April 22.

Most are likely to survive, and to run. The newcomers include such special interest groups as:

The Casino Party — which seeks to legalize gambling;

The Green Weed Party — whose platform calls for the legalization of marijuana and other recreational drugs;

The Pnina Rosenblum Party — named for the cosmetics manufacturer, TV personality and former socialite who supports social issues, including women’s rights;

Strength to the Pensioners — a group that ran previously and was short by a whisker of getting the percentage of votes needed to enter the Knesset;

Several environmental parties: the Greens, Law and Nature, and Voice of the Surroundings;

The Right of the Man in the Family Party;

Heritage of the Forefathers — led by Ba-Gad.

The messages of many of these parties remain veiled for the moment in tantalizing obscurity.

But they will explode upon the nation in full force three weeks or so before polling day, when the televised campaigning begins.

Each party gets a slice of the action on the small screen, though the parties in the outgoing Knesset get far more than the hopefuls and the unknowns.

The High Court of Justice recently ordered that both channels of Israel Television will be required to broadcast the pre-election ads. So non-political viewers will have to flee to the cable channels to escape the campaigns.

In fact, though, few people do.

Traditionally, the viewing public gets an enormous kick out of the often weird and sometimes wacky ads screened by some of the more esoteric parties. Often the next morning, people are whistling their jingles on the street, or quoting their slogans in conversation.

But on polling day, in the large majority of cases, the new little one-issue parties that spring up each election season fall by the wayside, their songs and little skits soon forgotten.

NEXT STORY