Israeli election campaign dominated by mud-slinging

Israel’s election campaign has got off to a murky start.
Instead of a national debate on such core issues as Palestinian suicide terror – and how to stop it, peace terms, threats from Iraq, Hizballah and al Qaeda, the recession-wracked economy and acute social afflictions, Israel’s news media are engulfed by the daily allegations of election fraud and vote trafficking at last week’s contests for the two main parties’ parliamentary lists.
The loudest and most scandalous charges are leveled against prime minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud, although the police, brought in to investigate the charges, are focusing on both Likud and its main adversary Labor. Under the pressure of these allegations, Sharon promised to initiate law reforms to improve voting procedures and impede fraud; after two Likud central committee members were placed under house arrest on suspicion of soliciting bribes, he promised to evict miscreants from the party.
The effect on public morale is crushing. However, paradoxically, after Labor leader former Maj-General Amram Mitzna charged that organized crime had taken over in Likud, an opinion sampling at the Tel Aviv Blich School bounced Sharon’s party higher than ever, to 31.5 percent of the vote, followed by Change – a newish party dedicated to fighting ultra-religious influence, and not much else – with 27 percent, and Labor, for the first time in its long history, in third place with 17 percent. Left-wing Meretz faces a vertiginous drop from 18 percent in the current Knesset, to 5.6 percent. Advance election polls at this Tel Aviv high school are renowned for hitting the nail on the head in almost every general election since 1977.
Changes are inevitable by voting day on January 28, especially for the oddball Change, but the upward trend of Sharon’s party remains steady month after month.
How Labor’s allegations against Likud are filtered through to public awareness was demonstrated in a cameo from a live TV talk show broadcast in Tuesday December 17. The Labor leader was challenged to provide proof of the organized crime allegation he leveled against Likud. “Proof?” he asked in astonishment. “Don’t you read the papers or listen to what people say to the media?”
Nonetheless, debkafile‘s political analysts have no doubt that some of the charges against Likud will stick; a certain amount of vote trafficking, fraud and bribery has become a feature of this and other party mechanisms for choosing their party representatives. The Labor leader may protest that his party’s primary contest was the essence of an honestly run democratic process – “no deals, intrigue, or political assassinations”. However, several hundred of the party’s ballot boxes are under scrutiny, their contents either inconsistent with the size of the local turnout or strongly suggesting prepared lists and block voting.
It therefore behooves both of Israel’s leading parties to spring-clean without delay. But our analysts are certain that criminal wrongdoing is the exception rather than the rule, eroding the party fringes and infecting the lowest rungs of the list, an affliction that will be sorted out with the help of law enforcement agencies. The trouble is that little time is left for real campaigning and the airwaves are too clogged with scandal to leave space for a national debate on the real issues.
What is already apparent is that all the important parties are fighting for a foothold at the political center. Sharon, though confident of sufficient votes to manage without Labor, has vowed to establish a national unity government, a euphemism for sharing power with Labor. Mitzna, who gained his party’s top spot as a dove, is making sure not to lean to far left, although he swears he will not join a Sharon government, “because all Likud administrations were fiascos.”
Sharon, to the dissatisfaction of sections of his party, is committed to a demilitarized and limited Palestinian state alongside Israel and peace bought with “painful concessions”, although shying away from timetables and the uprooting of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He stands by his demand for terrorist violence to halt as a sine qua non.
Mitzna is committed to uprooting Hebron’s Jewish population, eliminating Jewish habitation in the Gaza Strip and the unilateral separation of the Israeli and Palestinian populaces. He also talks about handing over Temple Mount and parts of historic Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
Yet, “as next Israeli prime minister,” he warned the Palestinians Tuesday, December 17, that those who continued to wage terror “would be beaten to pulp,” while anything that moved in south Lebanon would be “exterminated” if the Hizballah went to war.
The scandals make good copy but it is hard to see any outcome from the January election but one: Sharon at the head of a complaisant Likud will gain a free hand, such as the Israeli voter has never before granted to any Israeli leader, to choose his line-up: he can form a non-religious cabinet or opt for a nationalist-religious alliance. In either case, he can count on a comfortable parliamentary majority without Labor and Meretz.
However, Mitzna need to worry; the Likud leader will certainly invite Labor to join a broad-based government, which Sharon prefers, boosting it to a commanding 80-87 percent of the Knesset.
As for the Israeli voter, no one is about to recompense him with more security or more democracy – or rescue him from an economic crisis that keeps 40 percent of the country below the minimum income line and 10.4 percent out of work. Neither will the perils to the country evaporate by January 28.

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