Israel's nationalist camp, led by the Likud Party, has won every general election since it first swept into power in 1977--except for Labour candidate Yitzhak Rabin's 1992 victory. Pollsters credit demographic shifts for the Israeli Right's success. For instance, PM Binyamin Netanyahu's win in 1996 rested on three, rapidly-expanding segments of the electorate--the Orthodox, Mizrahi or eastern Jews, and new Russian immigrants. Thus, if the incumbent Netanyahu were to maintain their support, he has a built-in edge for being returned to office this May 17. Here is a brief review of key internal and external factors in the past two nationwide elections which eventually swung the outcome--and which give us some idea what to look for this time around.

1992 Elections

Although most Israelis had grown weary of the violence of the intifada by the early 1990s, they remained rather evenly divided between the Labour and Likud prescriptions for ending it. Israel's national elections in 1992 therefore turned on the huge influx of new immigrant voters from the former Soviet Union and how they were influenced by the Bush Administration's manipulation of the loan guarantee issue.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, Israel requested that the US act as surety on $10 billion in loans it would borrow over 5 years to help absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants streaming into the country. Ignoring the humanitarian aspect of this appeal, US President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker pushed for political linkage of American approval of the loan guarantees to a freeze on Israeli settlement activity--a move designed to appease Arab demands in the nascent Madrid peace process.

Likud PM Yitzhak Shamir refused to freeze the "natural" growth of the settlements, setting off the most severe crisis in US-Israel relations since the Reagan Administration's sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia a decade earlier.

As the loan guarantee debate dragged out for months, early elections suddenly loomed when two right-wing parties toppled Shamir's government over "autonomy" talks with Palestinian delegates. The Bush-Baker team took advantage of the opportunity to send a not-so-subtle message to the new Israeli immigrants: Vote for Labour's Yitzhak Rabin and you will get your money.

With Shamir portrayed as the obstacle to their much-needed assistance and unemployment running high, 60 per cent of the Russian immigrants voted for Labor on June 23, tipping the scales in Rabin's favor in a close election. (Parties right-of-centre actually outpolled the Left, but many of these votes were "wasted" on small parties that failed to meet the threshold for the Knesset.)

When Rabin visited Kennebunkport on August 11, Bush approved the loan guarantees based on the new Israeli leader's convenient distinction favouring "security" over "political" settlements.

1996 Elections

With the Oslo peace process came unprecedented carnage from Palestinian terrorists, and Likud leader Netanyahu enjoyed a brief lead over Rabin in polls conducted just before his assassination in November 1995.

Caretaker Prime Minister Shimon Peres was buoyed by an outpouring of public sympathy and confidently called early elections to win his own mandate for Labour's Oslo peace moves. In the ensuing run-up to the ballot box, the new Russian immigrants once again proved critical to the outcome, together with a wave of Islamic suicide bombings during the election season.

A bloody week of terrorist bombings in February-March 1996, which claimed 63 dead and hundreds hurt, quickly eroded Peres' sizeable edge in the polls--20 per cent of his support dissipated overnight.)

In response, President Bill Clinton, seeking to bolster the Peres government and preserve his own stake in Oslo, called an emergency "Summit of Peacemakers" at Sharm-es-Sheikh in the Sinai. The 29 nations summoned sent a message of conditional support to Israeli voters: We will stand with you if you oppose the "enemies of peace"--whether Hamas or the hawkish Right.

Reacting to the intolerable price of "peace" as well as to external pressure, Israelis shifted towards the nationalist camp. Netanyahu had survived a tough fight within Likud from "princes" like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor for the top spot vacated by Shamir.

Veteran warrior and politician Ariel Sharon played "kingmaker," bringing Gesher's David Levy and Tsomet's Rafael Eitan into a Likud-led coalition. Added momentum came when retiring army major-general Yitzhak Mordechai joined the Likud, cementing many Sephardi or Mizrahi votes. Finally, Orthodox elements endorsed Netanyahu as "good for the Jews" just days before the election.

The critical bloc of post-1989 Soviet immigrants, who had put Labour in power four years earlier, felt betrayed when the loan guarantees were not used for their benefit. (Some reports alleged Labour channeled the proceeds to lower interest rates on the average Israeli's mortgage, among other uses.)

Once again, they blamed the "establishment"--this time the Labour-led coalition--for their economic struggles and also veered rightward. In the first direct election of Israel's prime minister, 62 per cent voted for Netanyahu.

Natan Sharansky, who entered politics with his Yisrael b'Aliyah party in the 1996 elections, has described the Russian olim as being generally dovish in their ultimate vision of peace, but very hawkish on the process, considering their deep distrust of non-democratic Arab regimes. Thus, they were more comfortable with Netanyahu's pledges of "reciprocity" and "peace with security" as the remedy for Oslo's costly human toll.

So, apparently, were a full 60 per cent of the Jewish citizens of Israel, providing Netanyahu with a surprising and razor-thin victory margin of less than 30,000 votes over the Labour-led leftist-Arab coalition.

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