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News Analysis: Are Rabin’s Harsh Words Harbinger of 1996 Elections?


Perhaps taking a cue from American politics, the Israeli election season has for all intents and purposes begun.

In what political pundits viewed as an early harbinger of what the 1996 Israeli election campaign will be like, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin badly accused the Likud opposition on Israel Television last Friday of “making common cause with Hamas.

That accusation promptly triggered countercharges from a Likud official that Rabin had “lost his marbles.”

There can be little surer indication that the campaign has begun than this exchange, which, like much political rhetoric, generated more heat than light.

If anyone had any doubts about the matter, Rabin dropped a broad hint last week that he intends to lead his Labor Party into the country’s national election.

“I am conducting a policy,” he told reporters, “and I intend to lead that policy for as long as I can.”

“Does that mean you intend running in the election?” a reporter asked.

“You seem an intelligent young woman,” Rabin replied. “You can understand what I said.”

The next day, while speaking on Israel Television, Rabin launched the unprecedentedly sharp attack on the Likud and on its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rabin said Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant fundamentalist organizations that have claimed responsibility for a series of recent terror attacks against Israelis, were attempting to erode Israeli support for the ongoing peace process.

Rabin then added that “the terror groups succeed because the Likud has become the collaborator of Islamic Jihad and of Hamas.

“Every terror attack triggers a counterassault by the Likud” against the Rabin government, he said, adding that “this situation will only perpetuate and escalate the terrorism.”

In reaction, Netanyahu said the prime minister was “apparently losing his head.”

“Instead of adopting a tough policy against the terrorists, he follows a policy of weakness and capitulation towards them, and blames the opposition for his government’s failures,” Netanyahu said.

Likud Knesset member Limor Livnat warned that Rabin’s language could “lead to civil war.”

Another Likud parliamentarian, Tzachi Hanegbi, called on the prime minister to waive his parliamentary immunity so that he could be prosecuted for incitement.

“Never in the history of Israel has such a low and inciteful statement been uttered,” Hanegbi said. “It reflects Rabin’s state of mind.”

Also questioning Rabin’s mental capacities was Netanyahu spokesman Shai Bazak, who accused Rabin of “apparently losing his marbles.”

“Instead of displaying an aggressive policy against terrorism, he is conducting a policy of hesitancy, concessions and gestures toward the terrorist organization,” Bazak said.

Rabin’s attack on Likud came against the backdrop of waning support in opinion polls for Labor and for its peace policies.

A new study released Sunday by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University showed Labor behind Netanyahu, a general mood of worry over matters of personal security and skepticism over the peace process.

Political sources said Rabin’s attack on Likud reflected a deliberate decision by labor’s top leadership to step up Labor’s rhetoric against the right — and especially Likud.

These sources said Rabin’s statements last Friday were no slip of the tongue, but a pre-planned assault.

They said the Labor Party’s campaign strategy would be to demonstrate that the Likud, for all its railings against the government, can produce no viable and credible alternative policy of its own on the peace front, or on the domestic front.

In an effort to gird itself for the upcoming elections, the Labor Party has not only come out swinging against Likud, it has also taken steps to shore up disputes within its own membership.

In this regard, Labor’s Central Committee, the party’s top policy-making forum, on March 23 endorsed the party leadership’s recent decision to welcome Histadrut Chairman Haim Ramon and his supporters back into the party fold.

Ramon, formerly minister of health, seceded from Labor last year in a dispute over health reform. He then ran successfully against Labor for the leadership of the Histadrut labor federation.

In recent weeks, police inquiries have been launched into alleged misuse of Histadrut funds for labor party purposes by the defeated former leadership of the union movement.

This development, though obviously damaging Labor’s standing in the short term, is seen by many in the party as a long-overdue cleaning of the stables, which, with the popular Ramon’s return to the fold, can help Labor recapture public support.

Similarly, Ramon and Finance Minister Avraham Shohat announced over the weekend an agreement regarding the future of the Histadrut-run pension funds, where Ramon had discovered looming financial disaster after episodes of mismanagement over the years.

In an attempt to prevent such a disaster, Shohat undertook to guarantee the accumulated rights of present pensioners and longtime members of the funds, who number in the many hundreds of thousands, while slightly reducing the pension conditions of younger members.

This action, too, was seen as a much-needed reform. Although the situation implicitly reflected earlier Labor Party-related mismanagement of the pension funds, Shohat’s step may signal a new resolve to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the handling of domestic affairs.

Some Labor Party hopefuls believe, therefore, that despite the party’s low standing in the polls, Ramon’s return to the party fold and Rabin’s get-tough rhetoric can reverse the party’s sagging fortunes.

Others are less prepared, at this point, to tie their future to the sagging Rabin.

Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, remarked pointedly over the weekend that for him what will matter in selecting the party’s leader will be solely the prospect of advancing the peace process to its successful conclusion.

The new leader “can be 70 or he can be 45,” Burg said, “so long as he brings peace.”

Burg’s reference to “70” was plainly an allusion to Rabin, who is 73, and or to his longtime rival Shimon Peres, 72.

His mention of “45”, on the other hand, was a clear reference to Ramon, who, flanked by younger-generation figures such as Yossi Beilin and Ehud Barak, could present to Labor stalwarts and to general public an alternative leadership team.

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