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Israel in election mood

Print edition : Dec 06, 2002 T+T-

The hardline Likud party is all set to make major gains in the January parliamentary elections, but the Labour party can tilt the scales by shifting its focus from national security to economic issues.

AS Israel prepares to go to the polls in January, the chances are that its people will elect a Likud party government or a coalition whose right-wing moorings are well pronounced.

Opinion polls show that the Likud party, to which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon belongs, is powering ahead to be the single largest party in the 120-member Parliament, or Knesset. It is predicted that the right-wing bloc may win 70 seats while the leftist coalition may get the remaining 50.

Analysts attribute the steady gains the Likud and its natural allies could make to the crucial events of the year 2000. In that year, the Labour government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, sought to make peace with the Palestinians. But many Israelis have come to believe that the Labour's exertions with the peace process were flawed. In return for the Israeli olive branch, the Palestinians, it is said, reciprocated with a second Intifada and a two-year wave of terror attacks. In the streets of Israel, this mood is yet to soften, and few believe that Labour should be given another chance to adopt negotiations with the Palestinians as the anchor for enhancing Israeli security.

Sensing the hardened public mood, the Likud party appears to have gone into a hardline overdrive. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is competing with Sharon for Likud's leadership, has declared that he does not believe in the United States' plan to bring peace to the area by creating an independent state of Palestine under a new generation of Palestinian leaders. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he thinks, should be removed from political contention.The possible war against Iraq to unseat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in his words, presents "a good opportunity to get rid of Arafat". Netanyahu later, however, tried to backtrack by saying that there would be no change in Israel's foreign policy in case he is voted to power.

In comparison, Sharon, despite his use of disproportionate force against the Palestinians during his tenure, and his hawkish track record, is relatively restrained in his public utterances. While his troops pulverised Arafat's official compound in September, Sharon stopped short of expelling Arafat from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Sharon has also given the impression that he is more susceptible to the U.S.' pressure and, therefore, had tempered his harsh disposition towards the Palestinians by taking into account the U.S. sensitivities. This has gone down well with Washington. In fact, in his battle for the Likud summit, Sharon is projecting himself as a tough but more responsible leader, in contrast to the flamboyant and charismatic Netanyahu, whose personal and political credibility had come under scrutiny in the past. Accusing Netanyahu, who is currently Israel's caretaker Foreign Minister, of pandering to populism, Sharon said early November that "even during a period of elections, I expect from Ministers and from those who see themselves as political leaders to demonstrate responsibility. We must not appear to be a chaotic country. Leadership is not built on baseless rhetoric. Leadership is not built on words. I will not stand any harm to our international relations, damage that can harm our international standing and our efforts to gain economic assistance for Israel."

The tussle between Sharon and Netanyahu will come to a head on November 28 when Likud meets to choose its prime ministerial candidate. The chances are that Sharon will edge out his challenger, although the leadership battle is still far from over. Opinion polls conducted within Likud by the Dehaf Institute show that Sharon is leading 44 per cent to Netanyahu's 38 per cent.

WHILE the Labour party, by contrast, is clearly on the defensive, it might still have a slim chance at the polls, in case its plays its cards right.

Analysts point out that Labour has to consolidate Israel's peace camp votes behind it. For this, it needs to decide quickly on who shall lead the party to the polls. Its best chances lie in projecting Amram Mitzna as its leader.

A former decorated Major-General, he fulfils the Israeli electorate's propensity to accept a dovish individual as a leader, only if he has had a hawkish past. That was the case with the late Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, two top-notch former military leaders, but whom the Israeli public backed when they tried to strike a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians. Mitzna's acceptability is further enhanced because he carries with him the legacy of Yitzakh Rabin. In fact, it was Rabin who had in 1993 appointed Mitzna as the Mayor of Haifa, an Israeli city that has a significant Arab population.

Mitzna is more likely to attract Israel's pro-peace constituency, as he has not been tainted by his association with Likud during the national unity government of Sharon, in which the Labour party participated. In fact, Labour Defence Minister Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer had to face the embarrassment of defending the widely condemned dropping of a one-tonne bomb by an F-16 plane over a crowded Gaza residential area this summer, in which several civilians, especially children, were killed.

Ben-Eliezer's defence of the Gaza raid has obviously not pleased Israelis with dovish sensibilities.

Mitzna by contrast has stirred the peace camp as he has promised fresh talks with the Palestinians and a pullout from the occupied territories, either as part of a negotiated deal or, even unilaterally if that fails.

But, despite being a front-runner, his leftist supporters within Labour may have to work harder to make him win the leadership race, which reached its climax on November 19. This is because Ben-Eliezer mostly controls the party machinery, and only a groundswell of support from leftist and unaligned Labour members will precipitate the change.

Ben-Eliezer's determination to cling to power also need not be underestimated. In fact, with his personal popularity ratings plummeting and the Labour party's credentials under threat on account of its participation in the Sharon government, it was Ben-Eliezer who pulled Labour out of the national unity government and precipitated elections. Sharon could have remained at the helm without Labour support, but that would have left him depending on a far-right coalition. The chances were that the shift to the extreme right would have strained Israel's relations with its chief ally, the U.S., and would have further damaged its controversial image in the rest of the world. The Labour party also has to quickly ensure that a third candidate, Haim Ramon, who is splitting dovish votes at present, quickly withdraws from the leadership race and pools his support base behind Mitzna.

Once united and focussed under a single leader, Labour's best chances will lie if it can shift the Likud agenda from national security to economy or, if that is not possible, at least ensure that an economic dimension is added to Israel's electoral debate. By January, the effect of Sharon's austerity budget will begin to show, as payments to pensioners, the unemployed and the disabled will begin to drop. This is Labour's home turf, and with economic hardship increasing, it can make further inroads in these constituencies.

Labour can make further progress if it can nudge the elections into a referendum on Sharon's rule, during which inflation and unemployment reached record levels.

Although Likud can counter this by pointing out that investors and tourists on whom Israel's economy has depended have stayed away because of terror, this argument is only partially true, and in fact, incomplete. If the Left is sensible, it can counter-attack the Likud by drawing a linkage between the existing tough economic conditions to its deliberate effort to break down systematically the possibilities of a dialogue with the Palestinians. In other words, the Left can argue that prosperity and peace need to go together and Israel's economic self-interest demands that a political track with the Palestinians is reopened. The Labour party can also turn the heat on the Likud by pointing out that Sharon is ignoring the sufferings of pensioners and workers and, instead, siphoning off money to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Analysts point out that the Left has one more card up its sleeve. Sharon won the 2001 elections owing to the apathy of Israel's one million Arab voters, who preferred not to vote. But this time, the chances are that the Arabs will vote. They have several parties of their own, and if they enter the Knesset, there is a good chance that if the Labour works hard enough, they will partner it and form a common Leftist bloc.

WITH Israel looking inwards nearly two months ahead of elections, the revival of the peace process is now officially on hold. In a way that would give the Palestinians a breather as well as an opening to introspect before they face their own elections in December. It is possible that the Palestinian elections will throw up a new generation of leaders. If there is a leadership change among the Palestinians, the chances of the revival of peace talks will improve, as U.S. pressure on Israel to open a dialogue with a new Palestinian dispensation will mount. This will also galvanise the peace lobby within Israel, which, for some reason has held Arafat responsible for blocking a breakthrough in peace negotiations two years ago.

While the Israel-Palestinian issue takes a backseat in the crucial months ahead, the U.S. will find itself fully focussed on Iraq, the second area of concern for the people of the entire West Asia.

With Israel, a key U.S. ally in tackling Iraq, going through internal convulsions, it is likely that a possible attack on Iraq will be put on hold. Washington, in the meantime, is expected to utilise fully this period to complete its already huge military build-up in the Persian Gulf area. With elections in Turkey (see separate story), a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally, over, it is also expected that the U.S. will, within this time-frame, repair its northern front against Iraq, which is in some disarray because of Turkey's objections to Washington's active engagement of the Kurdish groups in the fight against the Iraqi regime.