Election Briefs

Decision Time in Israel

The Israeli general elections on May 17 will determine the leader and parties to guide the nation in final-status talks with the Palestinians. The campaign season so far has been long and erratic, and marked by complaints over the low level of debate on issues of substance. Some commentators see little real difference in blueprints for a final settlement among the three central candidates for prime minister (Binyamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Mordechai and Ehud Barak), with Benny Begin on the right and Arab/leftist Azmi Bashara the only ones espousing clearly distinguishable policies. But the differences between the Labor and Likud camps cannot be discounted, and the electorate's choice will have a distinct, lasting impact as Israel seeks closure in the peace process. In any event, this election promises to finish in a flurry and certainly will be remembered for its poll-driven decisions and recurrent, high-profile defections.

Race for Prime Minister

In the latest Gallup polls (14 April), the numbers show:

Graph 1

First Round:
Netanyahu 38%
Barak 37%
Mordechai 10%
Begin 3%
Bashara 4%

Second Round:
Netanyahu 44.4%
Barak 44.6%
Netanyahu 44.3% Mordechai 44.5%

[Note: If no candidate wins at least 50% of the vote on May 17, the top two vote-getters will compete in a run-off on June 1.]

The Center Party finally gave up on attracting right-wing voters and turned its attention to traditional Labor supporters. Responding to Barak's call to join his "One Israel" list, Mordechai boasted only he can "win big" against Netanyahu in a run-off.

The election's first televised debate resulted in a very personal duel between Netanyahu and Mordechai. Netanyahu was viewed as taking more hits, but elicited a crucial pledge from Mordechai to stay in the race until May 17. Barak declined an invite to the debate, heeding the advice of controversial American campaign guru James Carville. Barak then pledged to hold a referendum on final status positions within two months of election, a move he opposed one year ago as "wasteful." Netanyahu (and Meretz' Yossi Sarid) said the election itself is a referendum, while some noted the Knesset already enacted a law requiring a public referendum in order to cede sovereign territory.

The threat by Yasser Arafat to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on May 4 continued to play into electoral projections. The US, EU, Egypt and Jordan cautioned that such a move would bolster the chances of Netanyahu. He charged Arafat with interfering in Israel's election on Barak's behalf. Earlier, the sitting PM personally telephoned the PA leader with guarded praise for foiling a Hamas terrorist bombing planned for Tel Aviv.

However, Netanyahu later said the PA's fight against Islamic militants is sporadic. Israeli security launched a manhunt for the alleged mastermind of the bomb plot, Hamas fugitive Mahmoud Abu Hunoud, believed responsible for suicide bombings that killed more than 20 Israelis in 1997. The PA wants to prevent Hamas bombings for now, since they could drive voters to the right, just as a spate of Hamas attacks helped topple Shimon Peres three years ago. Since the Likud leader's victory in that election, there has been a substantial drop in casualties from terrorism.

Perhaps the oddest development of the campaign came during Netanyahu's visit to Russia to discuss closer ties and technology transfers to Iran. Russian PM Yvgeny Primakov said that if he were an Israeli, he would vote for Netanyahu. Former Russian Ambassador to Israel Alexander Bovin wrote an op-ed in Izvestia, praising Netanyahu's opposition to a Palestinian state. At a stopover in Tbilisi, Georgian President Edouard Shevardnadzeh noted that most Georgian Jews in Israel support Netanyahu. And in Kiev, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma reportedly raised a toast to the "present and future Prime Minister of Israel."

Race for Knesset Seats

Graph 2

About 30 political parties are registered to participate in the 15th Knesset elections, topping the previous record of 27. The expected minimum needed to clear the 1.5% threshold for a Knesset seat is 50,000 votes. This estimate assumes the number of eligible voters – which stood at 3,933,250 in May 1996 grew by 10 percent due to youths coming of age and new immigrants. Latest projections (March 26) are as follows:

Shas: Without question, the most dramatic events shaping the political landscape centered on Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri, regarded as one of Israel's most effective politicians. Deri was sentenced to 4 years in prison and fined over $60,000 on April 15, following his conviction a month earlier of accepting bribes, aggravated fraud and breach of trust while serving from 1985 to 1990 as Director-General and later Minister of Interior. Deri appealed the court decision, which ended a 9-year investigation and trial.

It is uncertain how the verdict will affect the election and subsequent coalition negotiations, where Deri has proven skills as an inside deal-maker in Labor and Likud governments. The decision likely will increase feelings of alienation among ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews, leading to Shas gains at the polls.

A silent Deri had listened for two hours on April 17 as Justice Ya'acov Tzemach read aloud selected portions of the verdict, criticizing Deri in unusually harsh terms for accepting $155,000 in bribes and misappropriating another $200,000 in government money.

Bitter Shas supporters defied predictions of mayhem by complying with Deri's calls for restraint in reaction to the ruling. "G-d has performed a kindness with us, in that the verdict was delivered so close to the elections," Deri told party activists, urging them to respond "with prayer, and at the ballot box." Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef burst out crying when he heard the verdict, and was reportedly unable to speak afterwards; a medical check-up in mid-April revealed he even suffered a heart attack in recent weeks. Rabbi Yosef said that Deri is innocent, and will continue to head Shas.

Reactions from the political establishment reflected the wide admiration Deri has won in the ten-plus years of his meteoric rise. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed personal sadness for the Deri family, but added the decisions of the judicial system must be honored. National Religious Party leader Rabbi Yitzhak Levy said: " I feel personal sorrow at what he is going through... I hope that he wins his appeal..." From the left, Meretz leader MK Yossi Sarid said that the crimes of which Deri was convicted are "too heavy to bear." And Labour party figure Haim Ramon described the conviction a "mistake," berating the court's "character analysis of Deri as a head of the Mafia."

At a pre-sentencing hearing, the eight character witnesses speaking on his behalf included Lt.- Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (former Chief of Staff and the Center party's number two) and former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat, who both praised Deri's contribution to the peace process. "I can only heap praise on him," Lahat said.

One woman testified how Deri mortgaged his home recently to raise $400,000 for a lung transplant needed by her son, while another recounted how Deri spoon-fed her husband for hours when he was dying of cancer. "The days would be very hard but we all knew that in the evening, Aryeh would come!" she pleaded.

Deri, born in Morocco 40 years ago and father of eight, offered an emotional defense, saying his children had suffered the most. His six-year-old daughter cried one day, "Daddy, where is the Jacuzzi?" after classmates told her of false press reports of his personal profiteering from the incidents.

Not all Knesset colleagues and Israeli commentators were as kind. Deputy Minister Michael Eitan branded Deri a "criminal who headed a network of crime," adding other parties should formally break contacts with the Shas leader if his party left him in power. Ha'Aretz contended that Deri must be banished from the political arena, and deplored his treatment as a martyr, "as if he were a prisoner of Zion."

Ma'ariv saw little chance of "an honorable exit" from politics for Deri, and found it ironic that Deri was appealing to the same Supreme Court his supporters condemn. Yet the Hebrew daily concluded his loss is not only felt by Shas and the Sephardic, ultra-Orthodox public, but also by the entire public —because Aryeh Deri was one of the most talented individuals to appear on our stage."

Ehud Barak finally broke his weeks of silence by vowing to exclude Deri from coalition talks if Shas left him in power. As a convicted felon, Deri may not serve as a cabinet minister for 10 years, although he may hold a Knesset seat under certain circumstances. Deri also faces 5 new charges of criminal fraud and breach of trust while at the Interior Ministry between 1988 and 1993.

One Israel: Cracks showed in Barak's joint list of Labor, David Levy's Gesher and dovish/religious Meimad, with the appointment of Rina Bartel to a key campaign position. Bartel ran a vicious anti-religious campaign last November in a losing bid as Labor's mayoral candidate in Raanana.

Israel Ba'Aliyah: Natan Sharansky reached a "surplus vote" agreement with Begin's nationalist list, combining excess votes needed by one party to claim an extra seat.

National Religious Party: After losing MK's Hanan Porat and Zvi Hendel to Begin's list, NRP courted settler leader Rabbi Haim Druckman to shore up its right flank.

The Worker's party: A strike by 400,000 government employees paralyzed Israel around Passover until all-night talks yielded an agreement between Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit and Histadrut leader Amir Peretz. Most politicians and citizens viewed the strike as "political," since Peretz is running for the Knesset on a new worker's party list. The wage deal grants public-sector workers a 4.8% increase - less than the 7% demanded.

Sources: The Jerusalem Post, IBA News, IMRA, Ma'ariv, Arutz 7, Infobeat, AP, Ha'Aretz, Yediot Achronot, Middle East Newsline, GPO.

For more information and updates on the Israeli elections, we suggest web-users go to http://www.stm.it/politic/israel.htm

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