ELECTION DIARY

Only hours after Independence Day festivities ended, Israel's lively, turbulent election campaign returned, with prime minister candidates Binyamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Mordechai skirmishing in the first (and only) televised debate. From that point, the electoral battle over Israel's future gripped the nation up to the May 17th vote. We recap some dramatic moments from the last weeks of the campaign.

22 April: When Netanyahu's security cabinet decided to close 3 Palestinian Authority offices at Orient House, Labor's Shlomo Ben-Ami termed it "political machoism," while the Center party's Mordechai begged Netanyahu "to leave the issue of Jerusalem alone." Netanyahu advisor David Bar-Illan blamed the PLO's Faisal Husseini with timing the confrontation.

23/4: Friday polls showed Mordechai losing ground in his bid to challenge Netanyahu in a June 1 runoff, but he refused to drop out and endorse Labor's Ehud Barak. Netanyahu accused his former defense chief of planning to do just that.

26/4: After 4 months of informal campaigning, the general election officially debuted with political ads on TV and radio. Pundits questioned their effectiveness in getting voters to switch. Netanyahu emphasized the "safer" Israel since he took office 3 years ago, while Barak stressed education, jobs and his status as "Israel's No. 1 soldier." Mordechai used dice to portray a vote for Barak as a gamble for those seeking to depose Netanyahu. The National Religious Party endorsed Netanyahu, while Syrian leaders aired their preference for a Labor victory.

27/4: Shas' Eliahu Suissa bashed Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, a former TV commentator, for his anti-haredi agenda. In a joint TV appearance, Suissa charged Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, had "learned nothing" from the experience. Labor and Likud spots used Russian subtitles to court immigrant voters.

28/4: Shas was widely censured for a video entitled "J'accuse" in which party leader and convicted felon Aryeh Deri likened his recent prosecution to "the Eichman and Demjanjuk trials," two figures tried in Israel for Nazi war crimes. Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B'Aliyah unveiled an aggressive strategy to challenge Shas for the Interior ministry in the next coalition. The lucrative portfolio oversees immigration and municipal budgets. A party slogan asked: "Shas Kontrol? Nyet!" to accent hurdles Russians face proving their Jewishness at Interior. Sharansky hopes to keep Russian voters from defecting to Yisrael Beiteinu. The gamble sets the large Russian and Sephardic blocs at odds, and opens new opportunities, or perils, for frontrunners Netanyahu and Barak. Barak is expected to promise Interior to Sharansky. Netanyahu cannot afford to rile either segment of voters.

29/4: Netanyahu claimed his firm stand forced Yasser Arafat to delay a declaration of statehood, after the PLO postponed a decision until after Israel's elections. Likud hammered this message in TV ads, while former model and political newcomer Pnina Rosenblum aired sober spots on domestic violence. Charges swirled over "political leaks" that police want foreign minister Ariel Sharon indicted in the Ben-Gal affair.

30/4: Friday polls place Barak up 8 points over Netanyahu. Analysts trace the shift to wavering Center party backers and undecided Russians drawn by Barak's pledge of Interior to Sharansky. But Barak stumbles by failing to condemn actress Tiki Dayan for slurring Likud voters as "riffraff." The same polls give PM candidate Benny Begin 3%, prompting his National Unity movement to focus on their Knesset slate for the remainder of the campaign.

1 May: Mordechai was visited by 8 former army colleagues who urged his withdrawal from the PM race. Mordechai tagged them "envoys of Barak," who was too "nervous" to make the appeal in person. Likud hit at Barak's statement last year that he might have joined a terrorist group if he had been born a Palestinian, and reminded voters of the terror campaign under the old "Peres-Barak-Beilin" government. Labor's Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin featured more prominently in Likud ads than in One Israel promos.

3/5: With two weeks left, the election sizzles: Netanyahu ripped Labor again for "elitism" after the Tiki Dayan slur; Mordechai opposes Deri remaining in politics; Deri pleads for Sharansky to rescind his bid for Interior; and NRP/National Union competition in the national religious camp intensifies.

4/5: On the date once touted for Palestinian independence, Netanyahu reiterated his strong stance swayed PLO leaders to delay statehood. Labor responded Arafat was never serious about May 4 and had actually won new friends because of Netanyahu. In a new scandal, Labor charged a Barak biography translated into Russian contained forged excerpts cited by Netanyahu as evidence of Barak's dovish leanings. Barak had earlier told US Jewish activists: "I don't spell out all my dovish views, because I want to be elected prime minister".

5/5: Lagging a distant third, Mordechai vowed to fight on in the PM race, but Center party figures weighed the effect of withdrawal on the party's Knesset slate, where projections have shrunk from 13 to 7 seats. He entered the race to "get Bibi," and can help Barak do just that in the first round if he withdraws, perhaps securing himself the defense ministry. But polls show the Center capturing only 2 seats if he bows out.

6/5: Netanyahu scored a crucial photo-op at a reconciliation between Eli Suissa and Natan Sharansky after the rhetoric between Shas and Yisrael B'Aliyah over Interior got too heated. When Suissa accused Sharansky's party of wanting to allow in criminals, prostitutes and "church-goers," Netanyahu acted fast to douse the fire, but refused to promise either specific cabinet seats. Barak toured the Jordan Valley, talking tough about his "red lines" with the Palestinians.

7/5: Friday polls showed Barak widening his lead over Netanyahu, the first time Likud has faced declining numbers in the closing stages of a campaign. Both major parties prepared for the possibility the PM race may be decided in round one, as the withdrawal of either Mordechai, Begin, or Bishara might spur all 3 to exit, thus obviating a June runoff.

9/5: Barak and Netanyahu wooed Red Army veterans on the 54th anniversary of Allied victory in Europe. Barak still basked after chess master Sharansky bested him in 6 moves. New Russian immigrants comprise 14% of the electorate and Netanyahu needs 65-70% to retain power. Key Arab leaders endorsed Barak.

10/5: Netanyahu played Sharansky to a draw in his turn at chess.

11/5: The High Court of Justice stayed closure orders for Orient House until after May 17, averting an election-eve showdown. Labor countered Likud's use of the "Jerusalem" issue with footage of Mayor Ehud Olmert praising Barak's stand for a united city.

12/5: Netanyahu berated the press for "brainwashing" voters against him and insisted the polls do not reflect his widespread grassroots backing. Likud is hoping for a June runoff, giving two extra weeks to "reawaken" support. Shas Torah Sages endorsed Netanyahu. A row erupted after a Meretz council member called Netanyahu "scum" and wished Sharon would die of a heart attack.


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