Even before new elections were a certainty this week, Labor Party posters touting their chief, Ehud Barak, began appearing in Israel reading: “One Israel for everyone and not for the extremists.”
Barak, a former army chief of staff who once served as foreign minister, has already hired American media gurus, including James Carville, who gained prominence helping Bill Clinton to the White House. It is clear from Labor’s new slogan that it will portray Netanyahu as too closely aligned with right-wing extremists.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, opened his campaign in his Knesset speech Monday evening, even before the call for new elections. He asserted that in his 2 2 years in office, he was loyal to his 1996 campaign pledge to pursue the Oslo peace path while maintaining security by holding the Palestinians to their pledges.
Polls show that while most Israelis agree with the strategy, they are distrustful of the prime minister, who in the end found it impossible to comply with the latest peace accord, signed in Wye, Md., in October, while maintaining his rightist coalition.
Instead, Israelis are most supportive of a man who isn’t even a candidate yet, a military leader who has never been involved in politics. In what some are describing as the “Colin Powell Syndrome,” former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, 54, is seen as Netanyahu’s biggest threat in the new elections, to take place this spring.
A recent Gallup poll showed he would command support of 52 percent of the population, compared with 35 percent for Netanyahu. But that might be because his views are unknown. The Israeli media have dubbed him the “Prince of Silence.” Haaretz columnist Daniel Ben-Simon noted, “People talk so much here that when you have someone who keeps his mouth shut, he’s an idol.”
Shahak has been on leave since stepping down in July as chief of staff after a 36-year military career, and has refrained from discussing politics until he formally leaves the army.
Shahak’s popularity underscores the sea change in Israeli politics, where personalities are eclipsing political parties. After decades in which Labor, on the left, and Likud, on the right, dominated the scene, the upcoming race will focus on individuals, including Shahak, who is expected to form a new centrist party.
Dan Meridor, who resigned as finance minister under Netanyahu last year, announced this week that he was leaving Likud to form his own centrist-right party. He criticized Netanyahu in harsh words, saying his leadership is “without an ounce of credibility left,” and pledged to restore honesty to the office of prime minister.
Another Likud stalwart, Benny Begin, son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is expected to challenge Netanyahu from the right. He has been a vigorous critic of Netanyahu’s decision to trade land for peace as part of the Palestinian agreements.
Roni Milo, the former Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, is also planning to run, and has been outspoken in his criticism of the growing Orthodox political clout.
Observers expect some combination party to emerge, which may include Shahak, Meridor and Milo.
But despite Netanyahu’s political troubles this week — his last-minute bid for a unity government was rejected by Barak, who said it was too late, and his coalition of eight parties abandoned him — no one is counting him out of the race. He is a dynamic speaker and forceful campaigner, and will play to the public rather than to his political rivals.
“I have no doubt that when we start the race, the 150,000 to 200,000 Likud voters will give me massive support,” he insisted this week, amid speculation that he may lose Likud leadership. “They know very well that only I, at the head of the Likud, can lead the country.”
Communications Minister Limor Livnat, Knesset rightist Uzi Landau, and hawkish Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, former supporters of Netanyahu, are expected to challenge him within Likud.
While Netanyahu managed for many months to maintain his one-vote majority in the Knesset, it was, in the end, the Wye accords that brought him down, alienating both the left and the right. The right objected to the Israeli troop withdrawal from another 13 percent of the West Bank. The left objected to Netanyahu’s suspension of the agreement and his insistence that the Palestinians comply with a series of demands before troop withdrawals resumed.
Although a date for the election may be set as early as next week, there was speculation that it would be held in late April — just prior to May 4, the date Palestinian President Yasir Arafat has promised to declare a Palestinian state. Labor is said to prefer mid-March. But Netanyahu has not ruled out waiting until the middle of the year, perhaps in the hope of an improved economy and that he could capitalize on a declaration of statehood.
An election in May would be a relatively short time for an election campaign in Israel and it could help or hurt Shahak. Under Israeli army rules, Shahak is prohibited from engaging in party politics for at least two months after he leaves the army; forcing the telescoping of his campaign. That could hurt him if he is unable to clearly articulate his message to voters. On the other hand, he would be less vulnerable to attack and have a shorter time to make any political gaffes.
Even before Shahak had a chance to throw his hat into the ring, he came under attack from Netanyahu. At a hospital visit in August to those wounded in a Tel Aviv bombing, the prime minister said Shahak’s place was “undeniably in the Labor camp, and even further to the left because he gave unreserved support to the Oslo accord” with the Palestinians.
A former protégé of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Shahak served as a negotiator of the Olso accord and eulogized the prime minister at his funeral, apologizing for not protecting him sufficiently.
Just last week, Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party that Shahak could beat Barak in the first round of the elections and “then fight me for power in the second” round. A second round is necessary if one candidate does not receive at least 50 percent of the vote.
Shahak is seen by many as a natural for political office. Twice decorated for courage in the army, he served as an elite commander with Barak in 1973. Together, they landed in Beirut dressed as Arab women to assassinate senior members of the PLO.
Barak, a brilliant military man in his own right, has proved a disappointment to many within Labor after succeeding Shimon Peres. Critics say he has failed to carve out a clear position for Labor rather than criticizing Netanyahu’s policies. He is known to have reached out to Shahak unsuccessfully on several occasions in an attempt to bring him into the Labor Party, even reportedly offering him the No. 2 spot on a Labor ticket.
In setting up a new party, Shahak and his supporters would have to match the well oiled machines of Labor and Likud, the two major parties in Israel. But the Israeli public appears fed up with the political figures they know best and many long for a fresh team to complete a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu froze implementation of the Wye agreement, polls showed that 80 percent of Israelis favored it.
Still, Barak, who made a meteoric rise through the Labor Party in the wake of the Rabin assassination, was shown in a poll published Tuesday by the Yediot Ahronot newspaper to narrowly beat Netanyahu in a head-to-head race.