JERUSALEM (Jan. 30)
Even before Israel’s major parties agreed this week to hold Knesset elections on June 23, it was clear that an early referendum would take place and that the campaign would focus on two pressing issues: peace and immigrant absorption.
The outcome is likely to depend on the voters’ perception of which party or politician offers the best economic, political and ideological choices. This year, about 200,000 voters will be new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union.
Likud, the party that has governed Israel for 15 years, will claim success in both of the two key areas.
It will point to the fact that 400,000 olim have been absorbed since 1989. And it will prove to the public that it can make peace for the second time in the history of the state, declared Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a close ally of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Likud’s first peacemaking success was the 1978 treaty with Egypt, negotiated by Menachem Begin, who was then prime minister.
Now Shamir’s government is engaged in peace negotiations, with three Arab states and the Palestinians. “It will not be an irresponsible peace, but rather peace combined with security,” Meridor promised.
The opposition Labor Party, of course, will try to turn Likud’s argument on its head.
Labor will contend that while Shamir talks peace, he does not mean peace, because he clings to ideological imperatives that make a peaceful settlement impossible.
It will claim that immigrant absorption has been a fiasco; that the government has no program to improve it; that funds are diverted to a frantic settlement-building program in the administered territories, jeopardizing American loan guarantees for resettling immigrants while 40 percent of the olim are jobless and immigrant housing remains in short supply.
The latest political polls show Likud and Labor evenly divided among the voters, with slight gains for the far-right parties.
According to Knesset member Binyamin Begin, son of the former prime minister and a rising star in Likud, the balance between the two major political blocs will be preserved in the elections, and another national unity government therefore cannot be ruled out.
But Labor is more seriously split over its future leadership than Likud.
Party Chairman Shimon Peres is clearly less popular than Yitzhak Rabin, his longtime rival for the office of prime minister, the polls show.
SHAMIR FACES CHALLENGE FROM SHARON
Moreover, Labor has a younger generation of ambitious politicians who may be ready to challenge either veteran. They include Yisrael Kessar, secretary-general of the powerful Histadrut trade union federation; Ora Namir; and Haim Ramon, chairman of Labor’s Knesset faction.
Shamir’s leadership of Likud seems on firmer ground. But a serious problem is posed by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, the party’s most outspoken hawk, who says he is running for Shamir’s job.
Sharon has directed a barrage of criticism against the government for offering the Palestinians limited self-rule in the territories.
He calls autonomy a “disaster,” thereby gaining mileage with the militant settlers movement in the territories, a core constituency of Likud.
Sharon would forego the U.S. loan guarantees rather than freeze settlement-building. He would further defy Washington — and cripple the peace process — by extending Israeli law to the Jewish-populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a move tantamount to annexing both territories.
The June 23 election date was officially announced Thursday, after the Labor Party leadership approved an understanding reached with Likud. Labor had originally favored June 16.
But Prime Minister Shamir told reporters “a week earlier or later would not have mattered.” He said he was satisfied with the date.
Ordinarily, elections would not have been held until November 1992, when the term of the 12th Knesset expires. But Shamir’s Likud-led coalition government lost its parliamentary majority a week ago when the far-right Tehiya and Moledet parties defected. Early elections then became a virtual certainty.