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News Analysis: Twin Suicide Attacks Throw Israel’s Elections Wide Open

February 27, 1996
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The suicide bombings that took 25 victims in Jerusalem and Ashkelon have thrown Israel’s election campaign wide open.

Opinion polls taken in the wake of Sunday’s attacks registered an immediate surge of support for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who until this week was lagging behind Prime Minister Shimon Peres by a wide margin.

The bombings, moreover, have given new impetus to efforts to bring popular maverick leader David Levy and his supporters back into the Likud fold and thus reunite the right in the battle for the country’s support on May 29.

Netanyahu himself, in a display of political dignity and acumen that won him plaudits from across the political spectrum, adopted a low-key, nonpolemical posture in the aftermath of Sunday’s twin disasters.

“This is not the time for arguments and divisions,” he told a somber, crowded Knesset on Monday afternoon. “The nation is united in its mourning, and in its strength.”

Peres, looking drawn and pale at the Knesset forum, reiterated the government’s longstanding double commitment: to press ahead with the peace process and with uncompromising war against Islamic fundamentalist terror.

As the premier spoke, a potentially dangerous dispute was building up among his ministers and seniors aides – and leaking out to the media.

At issue is the question why a two-week closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was lifted last Friday despite intelligence warnings of possible bomb attacks and despite the fact that Sunday marked the second anniversary of the Hebron massacre, in which 29 Palestinian worshipers were killed by a West Bank Jewish settler.

As a result of the bombings, and the questions that followed, Peres now faces perhaps the toughest test of leadership in his long political career.

The opinion polling shows people reinforced in their basic political outlook by this latest terror outrage.

Those prepared to countenance a Palestinian state, for instance – just more than 50 percent of the public, according to leading pollster Mina Tzemach – remain entrenched in that position, as do those opposed to Palestinian independence.

But the more immediate issue of personal security has apparently taken a heavy toll on Peres’ hitherto commanding lead over Netanyahu.

Just prior to the attack, Tzemach was showing the prime minister a dozen points ahead of his Likud challenger. A poll published Monday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot showed Peres at 46 percent, Netanyahu at 43 and David Levy at 6 in a three-way fight for the prime ministership.

In a direct matchup between Peres and Netanyahu, the gap was reduced still further, to 48-46.

That arithmetic reinforces Netanyahu’s urgent desire to bring Levy “back home” to Likud.

Israeli media reported Tuesday that Levy, who broke away from Likud to form his own Gesher Party and was planning to run for the prime ministership, had reached an agreement in principle to latch onto the joint list of Likud and Tsomet.

Netanyahu is apparently offering Levy terms similar to those which led Rafael Eitan in mid-February to merge his right-wing Tsomet Party into a joint electoral list with Likud.

That would mean guaranteed places for seven of Levy’s people among the first 40 on the Likud electoral list.

The reports say Eitan himself has offered to move down one slot, from second place to third on the Likud list, in order to accommodate Levy as No. 2.

The reports engendered immediate grumbling within Likud ranks, where faithful party members would find themselves battling for a shrunken and inadequate number of “safe” seats on the party list.

Not everyone in the Likud agreed this week with Netanyahu’s low-key tactics after the bombings.

For his part, Peres saluted the Likud leader for his statesmanlike restraint.

And observers believe that Netanyahu’s tactic of deliberately spurning an ostensible opportunity to reap “electoral capital” from the carnage will in fact work to his party’s benefit.

The Israeli nation after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination is not the same seething and volatile place that it was before that trauma, and a strident response by the opposition may not have struck a responsive chord.

Even hardline rightists, sworn foes of the Labor-led government, have largely preferred to keep a low profile after Sunday’s blasts.

The hoarse shouts of “Peres traitor” flung at the premier when he briefly toured the blood-spattered Jerusalem street Sunday morning were few and far between – in contrast to the violent masses that thronged the sites of bus bombs during the 1994-1995 series of terror attacks.

But the more silent and more sullen mood of fear and fury engulfing the nation offers little cause for comfort for the government camp, as the immediate post- bombing polls proved.

Granted, the pendulum is likely to swing back if a period of respite now ensues. Monday’s poll figures reflected an initial, instinctive outpouring of frustration.

But, as Rabin experienced to his profound distress during an earlier series of attacks, the swing back never goes all the way. Some of that frustration sticks, and the government suffers from it.

Even Rabin, the epitome of the gruff, straight-shooting military hero who enjoyed the trust even of people who did not support him politically, saw his standing sag in the face of repeated suicide bombings.

For Peres, the challenge is even tougher.

Although a successful past prime minister, defense minister and deputy defense minister, he has always suffered what pundits dub a “credibility problem.”

He lost four straight elections – in 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1988 – largely because of his inability to give the public confidence in him as a leader.

The Israeli public’s reaction to Sunday’s bombings – a reaction of a profound but muted grief – may signify a new realism in Israel.

And Peres once again finds himself facing a fateful test of character and leadership. Can Peres find the path to the nation’s broken heart, and offer the solace and reassurance that are the stuff of leadership?

“What is the lesson to be learned?” the popular and influential journalist Nahum Barnea said Monday afternoon, standing over the grave of his 20-year-old soldier son, Yoni, who was killed on the Jerusalem bus.

“I don’t know. I do not understand what has happened. I am protected by my lack of understanding.”

In many ways, his searingly insightful comment applies to all of Israel this week.

How the process of grasping for answers will pan out politically over the three months ahead is the question that the country, the region and indeed the world are pondering.

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