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:
Former Science Minister and Knesset member Ze'ev (Benny) Begin leaves the Likud
to stand for prime minister at the head of a new, nationalist bloc to the right of
Former Finance Minister and Knesset member Dan Meridor leaves the Likud to stand
for prime minister as representative of a new, centrist bloc to the left of Netanyahu;
Veteran Likud lawmaker Uzi Landau challenges Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.
Later, as nominations close, Netanyahu's political patron and former Likud minister
Moshe Arens joins the race, and Landau withdraws. The party will elect its leader on
The popular former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, barely out of military
fatigues, declares he will stand for prime minister as head of a centrist faction (possibly
in collaboration with Meridor), throwing Barak's Labour into a spin;
Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai vacillates publicly between staying in the Likud
or joining the Shahak enterprise. He is also wooed by Labour.
Communications Minister Limor Livnat, after much soul-searching, decides to
remain in the Likud, and support Netanyahu as its leader and prime ministerial candidate.
Labour leader Ehud Barak hires spin doctor James Carville--the man who helped
Bill Clinton become president.
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