Israel's political parties thrown into disarray as election campaign gets underway

The announcement in mid-December that early elections would be held in 1999 triggered a flurry of defections, bids for power, and re-alignments that changed the Israeli political playing-field significantly.

Both major parties, Likud and Labour, have been jolted by the turbulence. Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud shed members left and right, while Labour under Ehud Barak found a charismatic newcomer to the race threatened to erode its traditional constituency.

On May 17, Israelis will vote for a range of political parties and, separately, for the country's next prime minister. Should none of the candidates in the premier race win 50 per cent of the vote, as is expected, a second round run-off will be held on June 1 between the two who garnered the most votes in May.

Netanyahu's opponents in the left and centre will portray him as the premier who jeopardised both the Oslo Process and Israel's special relationship with the United States, while presiding over a disintegrating economy. His opponents on the right will accuse him of selling-out to the Palestinians, especially at the Wye Plantation. For his part, Netanyahu will present himself as the best option to give Israel "peace with security". He will also charge that Yasser Arafat would like nothing more than a Prime Minister Barak across the negotiating table (see panel, PLO-Labour axis).

Early opinion polls found Netanyahu trailing behind both Barak and newcomer Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, but as the first weeks of the new year passed, the gap narrowed in Netanyahu's favour. Some of the more significant developments in what promises to be an absorbing and belligerent election campaign follow:

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