Netanyahu faced with an uphill struggle

Israeli prime minister likely to finish 2nd to Labor's Barak in voting

May 16, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Three years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu staked his political career on the message that only a hard-liner could achieve a secure peace for Israel. Now, with the peace process stalled and the country's internal divisions widening, Israeli voters go to the polls tomorrow to decide if it's time to retire him.

It is an election whose results are expected to affect not only the Jewish state but a region dominated by Arab nations.

The campaign for prime minister has revolved around three issues: national security, the influence of ultra-religious Jews on the lives of the secular majority, and the depressed economy.

The results could determine whether the Palestinians declare an independent state, whether Israeli forces remain in Lebanon and whether Israel moves ahead in peace talks with Syria, the last of its Arab neighbors with which it is officially at war.

The Arab opposition to Netanyahu's re-election is so strong that some have openly endorsed his opponent, Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is Israel's most highly-decorated war veteran.

Tomorrow's elections also will decide the makeup of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and the character of the government to be formed by a new prime minister.

Neither Netanyahu's Likud coalition nor Barak's Labor Party is expected to win an outright majority.

Religious, ethnic divisions

The 120-member Knesset reflects Israel's religious and ethnic divisions: Russian immigrants, Israeli Arabs, religious Zionists, ultra-Orthodox Jews from Arab countries and leftists. Some political analysts predict the election will increase the representation of those who want to reduce the influence of the religious in the world's only Jewish state.

Netanyahu, who won election in 1996 on the slimmest of margins, has fought to keep Israel's 4.2 million voters focused on the sensitive national security issues.

He has argued that the next prime minister will be negotiating the future borders of the nation, the fate of its holy capital and the size of a neighboring Palestinian state.

Trailing in the polls, Netanyahu, 49, states unequivocally that Barak and the left would capitulate to Palestinian demands and "so weaken our status they will endanger our very existence."

But for many Israelis, the central campaign issue has become the telegenic, silver-haired prime minister and his brash rhetoric.

"I don't care Likud or Labor; we need a decent man," Israeli voter Galit Natan said, referring to the country's two main political parties. "It doesn't matter what you think about Jerusalem or don't think about Jerusalem. The issue is the man."

Natan is an observant Jew, a 30-year-old architect from Jerusalem. Attending an "Anyone But Netanyahu" rally last week, she bemoaned the state of Israel's middle class.

"What Bibi did in the economy is only for the rich people and the religious. For the middle class, he did nothing. Our salaries only went down. We feel it every day," said the young mother.

The future of Jerusalem, the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the nature of a Palestinian state -- Natan sees little difference between Netanyahu and Barak on these decisive questions.

"But the process to get there with Netanyahu will be horrible. He lies in everything he says. All his friends left him," Natan said, referring to the defection of several Likud leaders to form a new center party. "I don't want a leader who is a liar. If his friends can't trust him, I cannot trust him."

While many Israelis acknowledge that terror attacks have subsided during Netanyahu's term, most recognize the inevitability of an independent Palestine on their border.

Perceptions of Barak

Netanyahu's characterization of Barak as a left-winger more interested in advancing the stalled peace process than in securing Israel's territorial integrity hasn't held up.

Barak, 57, has emphasized his exploits as an elite commando fighting terrorists and his extensive military background. He promised that Jerusalem will remain Israel's undivided capital. He artfully exploited Israeli concerns over the economy, high unemployment and the internal strife between the secular majority and the influential ultra-religious minority.

"[Netanyahu] is using patriotism as a way to conceal his failures on other issues. After three years of social devastation then he comes and says, `I'm going to save Jerusalem'? We will protect Jerusalem, just as any other Israeli government," said Shlomo Ben Ami, an Israeli lawmaker from Barak's Labor Party.

Netanyahu, a tough-talking, American-educated leader, began the campaign leading in the polls. With four others vying for his job, he focused on the pledge he made to voters in 1996 -- the promise to bring peace with security. And he criticized the previous government's acceptance of the Oslo peace accords.

When a series of deadly terrorist attacks ripped through Israel that spring, Netanyahu capitalized on the country's fear to squeak into office by a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote.

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