The divisive tensions in Israeli society became political fodder this week as the main political parties pitted Ashkenazi against Sephardi, the “elite” vs. “the street.” Ehud Barak of the One Israel Party said he would not allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party to draw the country into a civil war just two weeks before the May 17 election, which some are calling Israel’s most crucial.
The latest storm in an already rugged campaign for prime minister began when Likud aired a commercial showing actress Tiki Dayan telling a One Israel rally last week that Likud’s Sephardic supporters — those of Middle East or North African descent — were “assafsouf” (riffraff) and “another nation.”
An announcer then intoned that Barak was at the rally and said nothing. And it showed a picture of him laughing, presumably in response to Dayan’s comment.
One Israel claimed the tape was doctored, that Barak actually was laughing at something else during the event. The party noted that Barak did not shake Dayan’s hand when she left the podium as an indication of his displeasure with her remarks.
Netanyahu sought to capitalize on Dayan’s remarks by making an unscheduled stop at the Tikva Market in Tel Aviv, saying he was there to “identify with the riffraff.”
Apparently unaware that his comments were being recorded, he told one merchant: “Those so-called elites, they hate the people. They hate anyone who isn’t them. They hate Sephardim. They hate Russians, the Ethiopians — anyone who isn’t one of them. … Who is the riffraff? The riffraff in the eyes of Barak and his friends are anyone who is not a leftist.”
Barak quickly seized upon by the remarks, saying: “I won’t let Mr. Netanyahu draw the people of Israel into a civil war.”
But a Likud member told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the party was not going to “pass on the present that Dayan gave the Likud, even if it means releasing the ethnic genie from its bottle, no matter how damaging it will be to Israeli society.”
The Dayan comments appear to have struck a chord with Israeli voters. They were featured in several other Likud commercials this week and were hotly debated on talk radio programs, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.
The Dayan commercials replaced a controversial Likud commercial that used footage of terror attacks that occurred in early 1996 under the Labor government of Shimon Peres. The commercial — which reportedly was ordered televised by Netanyahu himself after polls showed him trailing Barak by 8 percentage points — was pulled after one day when it generated negative reaction from the families of terrorist victims.
“The prime minister is using our children’s blood,” said one of several people who staged a protest in front of Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence. Several of them carried signs reading: “Don’t add to the pain of loss the pain of divisiveness.”
Yitzchak Mordechai, who is running for prime minister on the new Center Party ticket, said the commercial was the “last resort of a man who has lost his direction.” But Naomi Chazan, head of World Likud, defended the commercial and said it was relatively tame.
“We could have shown [victims’] bodies,” she said, pointing out that Labor in one of its 1992 commercials showed the murder of Helena Rapp of Bat Yam.
“They showed again and again how this girl was assassinated in a terror attack to show that Likud did not stop terrorists,” said Chazan. “So they are being very hypocritical now.”
She said her own party poll still shows the election too close to call. Chazan discounted the poll published in the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot that gave Barak an 8-point lead over Netanyahu should there be a second round of voting on June 1. A runoff would be needed if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote.
Chazan said she believed there would be a second round, but Steinberg said he believed Netanyahu could be defeated in the first round if Mordechai and his Center Party merged with One Israel. Mordechai has insisted that he is in the race to the end, even though polls show him with only 10 percent of the vote.
Polls also show that about 10 percent of the electorate is still undecided.
There were also media reports of dissension among the ranks of Likud leaders. A deputy cabinet minister, Michael Eitan, was said to be openly upset that the Likud campaign was focused exclusively on Netanyahu and made no mention of the party’s ticket for election to the Knesset.
Despite the latest commercial focus on ethnic tensions, the central issue in the campaign is the peace process. Netanyahu this week took credit for Palestinian President Yasir Arafat’s decision not to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on Tuesday, the date the interim provisions of the Oslo Accords were to end and the final status agreement to begin. But final-status talks made only an initial start before being halted for the Israeli election.
Although Arafat had spoken of May 4 as a “sacred date” in the life of the Palestinian people, he opted to postpone any action until he sees who will be elected prime minister.
But about 300 Palestinian students, upset that Arafat had decided to wait, marched through the streets of Hebron with a banner reading “Let’s work for our state, with Jerusalem as its capital.”
About 50 of them wore masks and fired pistols and automatic weapons into the air.
And in the West Bank town of Beitunia, Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers and burned tires. A similar clash was reported in Ramallah.