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It’s the Terror, Stupid: Latest Attacks Helping Sharon in Election Campaign

January 14, 2003
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Contrary to the hopes of the Israeli left, the old adage that terrorism helps the right seems to be holding true in this election.

Scandals involving the Likud and its leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had allowed Labor to climb out of a deep hole ahead of Israel’s Jan. 28 election. Suddenly, Labor and its left-wing allies began to hope that they might prevent the Likud and its allies from winning the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a right-wing coalition.

This week, however, Labor’s upward trend seemed to have peaked, and showed signs of reversing.

The main reason may have been that a financial scandal, in which Sharon was accused of taking an illegal $1.5 million loan to pay back earlier illegal loans to his political campaigns, has exhausted its impact.

But another important factor seemed to be continuing Palestinian terrorism — despite a call by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for terrorist groups to stop killing Israel civilians until after the elections.

At the weekly Cabinet session on Sunday, Sharon said Arafat’s call showed that he “was in control of terrorism.”

Sharon accused Arafat of trying to swing the election to the Labor Party, whose dovish chairman, Amram Mitzna, has pledged to negotiate with Arafat if elected. Since taking office in March 2001, Sharon has refused all contact with Arafat and has convinced the Bush administration that Arafat must be replaced for Israeli-Palestinian peace to have a chance.

Arafat’s ability and desire to control terrorism is, as always, a matter of debate in Israel. His own Fatah Party claimed responsibility for a Jan. 5 double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 23 people. On Sunday, two more Israelis were killed in attacks, one on a farming community in the Galilee and one in the Negev near the Egyptian border.

Left wingers might have hoped that continuing terror would hurt Sharon by demonstrating that he had failed to provide security for the Israeli public. In fact, it seemed to aid Sharon, as voters felt he would be better equipped to deal with Palestinian terrorists than Mitzna, who has said he would unilaterally uproot Israeli settlements from the West Bank and Gaza Strip within a year if he can’t strike a deal first with the Palestinians.

In addition, even if Arafat wants to help Labor, his embrace could prove fatal: his support of Labor ends up hurting the party, as Ma’ariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini noted over the weekend.

Even Mitzna this week went out of his way to declare that Arafat was “irrelevant,” a term taken straight from Sharon’s political dictionary. But he quickly added that a Labor-led government would negotiate with Arafat, regardless.

Whether Arafat condemns or condones terror, much of the Israeli public interpret such statements as meddling in Israel’s elections.

In any case, the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s own Al-Aksa Brigade show no sign of silencing their guns. This may tip the scale in favor of the right, as in past elections, but they couldn’t care less.

Though Arafat says terror attacks harm Palestinian interests both in the realm of international opinion and by preventing the ascension of an Israeli government willing to make concessions under fire the terrorist groups see further escalation of the conflict as a Palestinian interest.

Sharon’s tack in the campaign has been away from the right and toward the center, but Palestinians say he wants to keep the election campaign bloody to secure right-wing support.

“Sharon will not leave us alone,” P.A. official Saeb Erekat said. “He is determined to mark the election campaign with more Palestinian blood.”

Even if Arafat’s embrace is of dubious value, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow firebrand legislators Azmi Beshara and Ahmed Tibi to run in the elections has averted the threat of an Israeli Arab boycott and put an important constituency in Mitzna’s camp.

Columnist Gideon Levy wrote in Ha’aretz over the weekend that the court’s decision gives Israeli Arabs an opportunity to help mold the face of the country for years to come.

“They should come to the polls with no ifs and buts,” Levy wrote.

Reactions to the ruling seem to indicate that they will do so. That would contrast sharply with the 2001 elections, when only 18 percent of Arab voters showed up at the polls to protest the killing of 12 Israeli Arabs in October 2000 riots of solidarity with the Palestinian intifada.

The latest polls show that the various Arab parties will win 11 Knesset seats. Arab voters also are expected to contribute two or three seats to Jewish parties such as Labor and Meretz.

However, some voices in the Israeli Arab community still are urging voters to boycott the elections. These include the fundamentalist hard-liners from the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which refuses to vote to avoid conferring legitimacy on the Jewish state.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party recently ordered the closure of an Islamic Movement newspaper, accusing it of inciting against the state.

The High Court of Justice is due to review the case. But the Islamic Movement’s leader, Sheik Ra’ed Salah, wrote that the move really was “an attempt by the Likud and Shas to increase their voting percentage in the Jewish sector.”

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