Israeli Parties Staking out Ground with Elections Two Months Away

There usually is a defining moment in an Israeli election campaign: a major blunder by one of the candidates, a breakthrough slogan, an unexpected alliance, a gory terror attack or a challenge that turns an aspiring candidate into a national leader.

Voters are still waiting for that defining moment in this year’s campaign.

With the right-wing/religious bloc under the Likud Party maintaining a strong lead in the polls for the Jan. 28 elections, parties are struggling to define themselves and strike pre-election alliances.

And with the return to Israel’s old voting system, the popularity of the party has re-emerged as the critical factor in deciding the outcome of the next election.

Voters will cast just one ballot for a party, and the head of the winning party will form a government.

In the last two full national elections, Israelis cast two votes, one for a party and the other for prime minister. That created a plethora of smaller parties, but led to unstable governing coalitions.

The latest polls show the right-religious bloc winning about 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats to the left-center’s 55. A swing of just five seats to the left-center parties could turn the election results around.

But that’s easier said than done. To keep its lead, the Likud probably will focus on the center of the political spectrum, claiming that it has the will to fight Palestinian terrorism for as long as it takes, and the flexibility to make peace when the fighting stops.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stated support for President Bush’s two-state vision will help give the message credibility.

Indeed, common wisdom holds that Likud could make peace more easily than Labor. Likud would have Labor’s support for any peace agreement it strikes, while the reverse is far more questionable.

Still, Labor’s chances seem to have improved significantly with the choice last week of Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna as party leader. One poll, taken immediately after Mitzna’s victory in the Labor primary, showed Labor winning as many as four additional seats.

The ex-general has impressed people with his straight talk and clear policies, his courage in expressing a readiness to negotiate with any Palestinian leader — including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon has shunned because of his ties to terrorism — and his determination to take Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The election could boil down to a choice between the Likud’s prescription for more force until a new Palestinian leadership emerges that can strike a peace deal and Mitzna’s promise of separation from the Palestinians within a year, with or without a peace agreement.

Mitzna has been projecting a new self-confidence since the Labor primary. Asked about former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s advice that he repudiate his comments about negotiating with Arafat — because the Palestinian leader is “no longer relevant” — Mitzna snapped, “Ehud is no longer relevant.”

Mitzna’s dovish views may draw votes away from parties to Labor’s left, such as Meretz.

However, Meretz head Yossi Sarid drew first blood when he forged an alliance with Roman Bronfman, head of the small Russian immigrant Democratic Choice Party, offering him the fifth spot on Meretz’s Knesset slate.

Bronfman, who also lives in Haifa, always was close to Mitzna and Labor. His decision to ally himself with Sarid means that Meretz probably will get most of the small left-wing Russian immigrant vote.

Labor, on the other hand, antagonized its immigrant activists by reserving for them the 22nd spot on the party’s Knesset list. Given its showing in the polls, it’s not clear that Labor even will win 22 seats in the election.

Russian and Arab votes were crucial in the last two elections: In 1999, their support helped bring Barak to power, and their disillusion in 2001 helped unseat him.

As for the Arabs, there is a strong movement afoot to boycott the elections altogether — as they did in the February 2001 contest for prime minister — to protest alleged discrimination in Israel. That could further weaken the left-wing bloc, making Mitzna’s task even more difficult.

The return to the old system is expected to benefit the larger partes. In response, some of the smaller parties have tried to unite into larger blocs, without much success.

Natan Sharansky’s immigrant list, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, and Avigdor Lieberman’s mostly immigrant Israel Our Home Party held talks about a union, but made no progress.

Instead, Lieberman formalized an existing alliance between Israel Our Home and the far-right parties Moledet and Tekuma.

National Religious Party leader Efraim Eitam’s attempt to bring the NRP into this alliance sparked a rebellion in the party, and Eitam was forced to backtrack. To make amends and paint the NRP as more moderate — on religious issues if not on nationalist ones — Eitam guaranteed the fifth slot on the NRP list for a woman.

That helps differentiate NRP from its fervently Orthodox rivals such as Shas, which for religious reasons has no female candidates. But Shas accused the NRP of ethnic discrimination when internal party voting left Sephardi candidates low on the NRP’s Knesset list.

Shas seems most likely to suffer from the change in the electoral system, with many of its secular Sephardi supporters returning to the Likud. Polls show Shas falling from as many as 17 seats in the current Knesset to as few as eight or nine.

Shas has not been helped by a perceived split in party ranks: Supporters of former leader Aryeh Deri, recently released from jail after serving a sentence for bribery, have threatened to bolt and form a rival party.

The secular Shinui Party, which runs on an anti-religious ticket — it is opposed to budgets that favor the fervently Orthodox, for example — looks to be a big winner. Polls show Shinui winning as many as 12 seats, replacing Shas as the largest party in the Knesset after Labor and Likud.

But Shinui will be challenged by a new party called A Different Israel that takes similar positions. It also will be hurt by pressure from Likud and Labor as they vie for the hundreds of thousands of “floating” voters in the center, who ultimately will decide the election.

Likud may play to the centrists by softening its position toward the Palestinians.

Mitzna, according to some pundits, paradoxically would do better by sticking to his clear left-wing positions, trying to swing centrist voters with forceful and credible leadership.

Whether that will be enough to erase Likud’s lead in the polls will become clear only on Jan. 29, the day after voters go to the polls.

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