Benjamin Netanyahu, dubbed by the Israeli press as “the most vilified prime minister ever,” is battling for his political life in Monday’s election and his opponents — and even some supporters — smell blood.
Limor Livnat, the cabinet minister directing Netanyahu’s media campaign, reportedly was preparing to challenge Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud Party should he lose. And Netanyahu was said to be ready to fire Livnat if he does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote and is forced into a June 1 runoff election.
Netanyahu’s nervousness is understandable. Opinion polls, which until two weeks ago showed the election a toss-up between the incumbent and his principal challenger, Ehud Barak, Labor Party leader and head of the newly formed One Israel Party, now give Barak a decided edge. One Israel is an amalgam of three parties — Labor, the Modern Orthodox Meimad, and Gesher, which reaches out to Sephardim.
On Tuesday, the Gallup Poll showed Barak with a commanding 44 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Netanyahu. Their chief rival, Yitzchak Mordechai of the newly formed Center Party, had slipped to 7 percent. Two other candidates, Azmi Bishara — the first Arab Israeli to run for prime minister — and Benny Begin of the right-wing National Unity Party each had only 2 to 3 percent.
Netanyahu dismissed the latest poll numbers, saying he never wins polls, just elections.
As Election Day neared, there were reports that Bishara would withdraw and throw his support to Barak, who this week won the endorsement of two major Arab parties after he promised to make good on his campaign slogan of “equality for all.”
There was also pressure on Mordechai to quit. Although he repeatedly reaffirmed his intention to stay in the race until the end, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert of Likud said he believed Mordechai would drop out if polls showed him with less than 5 percent of the vote. Were that to happen, said Olmert, “Barak has a greater chance of winning in the first round.”
The Gallup Poll said Barak would win a head-to-head contest with Netanyahu by a whopping 13 points with 52 percent of the vote. It was the largest lead either candidate has had since Netanyahu was forced to call new elections in December — one year early — after competing members of his coalition paralyzed the government. Monday’s election will decide the composition of the 120-member Knesset.
The election — in which both Barak and Netanyahu have veered toward the center to woo the crucial bloc of undecided voters — is seen as crucial for the Jewish state. Israeli journalist Shmuel Segev termed it the “most important election since [Israel’s independence] in 1949 because it will define the direction of Israeli politics. … The issues ahead will determine the future of Israel as far as its final borders are concerned, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the direction of Israel’s foreign policy.”
This week, Netanyahu showed the hard-line approach that won him the election three years ago by moving to oust the PLO from its headquarters complex in East Jerusalem, known as Orient House. But a Jewish peace group appealed the move to Israel’s Supreme Court, which stayed the action until after the election.
Also this week, the Netanyahu government continued to court Russia in a bid to get it more involved in the peace process. The move — which exacerbated already strained relations with the United States — was seen as an attempt to win the support of the crucial Russian Israeli vote.
Referendum On Bibi
Barak and Netanyahu offer different approaches to the peace process. Barak has pledged to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon within one year and said there would be a referendum on any peace accord reached with Syria and the Palestinians. He promised to immediately start final-status talks with the Palestinians, and said Syrian talks regarding the Golan Heights would be picked up where Labor Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin left them when he was assassinated in 1995.
Netanyahu said he hoped to bring Israeli troops home from Lebanon within a year and said he would not be bound by any verbal agreements made with Syria by Rabin. He, too, said final-status talks would resume after the election, provided the Palestinians lived up to agreements regarding security, as called for in previous accords.
More than anything, the election is a referendum on Netanyahu’s performance in the peace process. Foreign relations, the economy, and his handling of religious and ethnic tensions are also in the mix, but it is the peace process that is paramount.
“I would have thought that other issues would have come up,” said Naomi Blumenthal, head of the Likud Party worldwide. “I thought that this campaign would have emphasized issues like quality of life, but we always come back to the peace process.
“I must say that today it seems like this is the most crucial issue because the question is whether we are going towards a policy that gives away the main part of Judea-Samaria and the Gaza Strip. That means going back to the June 4, 1967 borders and recognizing a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem, which is the policy of the left wing. … They don’t say it in their platform, but that is what they say when they discuss it.”
Netanyahu’s policy, however, calls for no recognition of a Palestinian state and no compromise on a united Jerusalem remaining the capital of Israel, she said.
“We have a different approach on how to secure peace,” said Blumenthal. “There is no question inside Israel that we want peace. … We can achieve a secure peace without making concessions all the time.”
Colette Avital, the former Israeli consul general in New York and now a Knesset candidate with Barak’s One Israel Party, views the election as a choice “between continuing to have the peace process stuck or go slowly and nowhere, or to find its course and reach a solution.”
Noting that Palestinian President Yasir Arafat has the support of European nations and the U.S. in declaring a Palestinian state should the peace process remain moribund a year from now, Avital said: “We are the party that negotiated [Palestinian] agreements in the past; we know how to do things.”
Were Netanyahu to win re-election, Avital warned, his government would continue to be “held hostage by extremists. Some of them are religious extremists and if he remains in power, we will see the growth of religious coercion.”
She noted that Netanyahu’s government has allocated a disproportionately greater amount of money to Shas-sponsored institutions and other Orthodox yeshivas “at the expense of other things in our society. And we saw that Netanyahu did not bring about harmony between the religious and secular but rather exacerbated tensions.”
This week, Netanyahu vowed not to form a new government without the Orthodox parties and announced a $3 million infusion of government money for settlements. His cabinet approved — over the objections of Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit — $5,000 cash grants for homebuyers in state-subsidized new neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and a $100 million five-year grant to the city for infrastructure improvements in that area. Almost daily in recent weeks, trailers have moved onto barren West Bank hilltops in a bid to expand existing settlements.
But this week, Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, the Orthodox Sephardic Party, told reporters he might recommend to the Shas Council of Torah Sages that it refrain from endorsing Netanyahu, as he had originally suggested.
Such a recommendation would hinge on Barak’s written commitment to maintain the current religious status quo, Deri said. But the proposal was dismissed by One Israel as a political ploy, and Barak said he welcomed Shas backers unconditionally.
But on Wednesday the Council of Sages accepted Deri’s recommendation and called on the public to support Netanyahu on the first ballot. Should Barak win, he has promised not to invite Shas into his government as long as it was headed by Deri, who was recently convicted of corruption.
Three years ago, Netanyahu beat Labor candidate Shimon Peres by 29,000 votes. But the journalist Segev pointed out that 150,000 voters cast blank ballots and that most of them were Labor supporters who could not bring themselves to vote for Peres. He said most could be expected to vote for Barak on Monday.
Arabs And Russians: Key Blocs
Many observers believe it could be a close race and that two voting blocs deserve particular attention — Arabs and Russians, each of whom represent 15 percent of the electorate. Segev said he believed the Arabs were going to vote in large numbers and that without Bishara in the race, their vote would go to Barak. Although the Russians voted heavily for Netanyahu three years ago, pollsters have detected an erosion of that support. Up to one-fifth of those questioned said they are undecided.
Both Barak and Netanyahu have courted the support of Natan Sharansky, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet who has not endorsed him. And they have gone out of their way to reach out to Russian voters, adding Russian subtitles to campaign ads.
The recently released February unemployment figures — another sign of the depressed economy — are also of concern to both groups. They showed that the jobless rate rose again to 8.7 percent, compared to 6 percent when Netanyahu took office in June 1996. Avital said the figure of 280,000 unemployed Israelis is the largest ever and that Barak would create 30,000 jobs a year.
“It’s easy to say that,” countered Blumenthal. “I could tell you the same. But we don’t need another government. We have proceeded with privatization as has no other government.”
Some observers believe that no matter who wins, a unity government of One Israel and Likud is inevitable to forge peace agreements with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. In that way, said Segev, the government would be able to function more effectively and not be beholden to extremists on both ends of the spectrum.