As Israelis gear up for the May 17 general elections, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is actively involved in efforts to influence the outcome at the polls. This despite the official PA position which holds that Israel's early elections are an internal affair in which the Palestinians will not interfere.

So reported the Hebrew-language media in late December. Yediot Ahronot (28/12) said the PLO planned to work at removing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from power by preventing terror attacks, downplaying the intention to declare a Palestinian state, and recruiting Israeli Arabs for one political party that will run its own candidate for prime minister.

From their side, certain Israeli politicians have shown a willingness to work hand in glove with the PA against compatriots who are their political opponents. Thus, according to reports in Ha'aretz (22/12), Israel's Labour Party has sought to strike a deal with the PLO whereby Arafat will refrain from declaring a Palestinian state until the elections are over. The purported joint aim is to undercut Netanyahu and his Likud Party during the election campaign. This was revealed in reports quoting Labour officials after party representatives travelled to Gaza and Cairo for meetings with the PLO chief. Other reports, however, cited PA officials as saying emphatically that "Palestine" will be proclaimed on May 4 "whether anybody likes it or not".

If reports on PLO-Labour cooperation are true, they support the Netanyahu election slogan: "Arafat wants a Labour Government". Labour has termed the slogan "incitement". This would not be the first time Labour has sought to strike a deal with the PLO to better its chances at the ballot box. In 1995, Labour Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezar said the government would give the PLO $250 million in return for Arafat's assurance that he would "not allow a single Palestinian into Israeli territory for the next 10 months" (ie: until elections were held). Ben-Eliezar boasted that there would therefore be no terror attacks in the run-up to the election, and Labour would "win big". A rash of terrorism in February and March of 1996 saw Labour's Shimon Peres defeated in the May poll.

Apart from the alleged pact with the Israeli opposition, there are other signs that make it clear Arafat and his cronies don't plan on staying out of the campaign. Israeli Arab advisor to Arafat, Ahmed Tibi, told Ram'Allah's Voice of Palestine (28/12) that because what happens in Israel affects the Palestinian issue, it is "the duty of the Palestinian leadership to monitor the Israeli elections, be aware of what takes place, question, explore, and draw conclusions."

One conclusion apparently drawn by these leaders is that the PA should harness Israeli Arabs in an effort to topple Netanyahu, as well as in support of Palestinian interests. To this end, said Yediot Ahronot, the PA intended to call for the unification of all Arab lists and political parties. Preliminary contacts on this issue had already begun.

Another mooted option was that Ahmed Tibi consider running for a seat as an Israeli lawmaker. Reports of this decision were not welcomed by incumbent Arab MKs, however. They believe that by standing, Tibi would split their vote and weaken support for a Netanyahu replacement. Yet another suggestion making the rounds was that an Arab candidate be fielded for premier. Such a move, it was believed, could force a run-off ballot in which it may be possible to defeat Netanyahu.

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