Scandal envelops elections in Israel

For now, Likud dust-up pushes economy, security to campaign background

January 05, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - With parliamentary elections less than a month away, Israeli voters might be excused for wondering if their political leaders have forgotten the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the country's wobbly economy, the issues that were expected to dominate the campaign.

All attention is focused instead on a scandal said to involve money, sex and organized crime, all of it linked to the elections scheduled for Jan. 28.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud Party is fending off allegations that some of its candidates bribed party officials to get their names on the ballot. The story has dominated news coverage of the campaign and includes allegations that payoffs included sexual favors.

Although campaigns here traditionally don't roar into action until televisions ads begin airing - in this case, Tuesday - candidates have canceled many events and are having trouble recruiting volunteers.

"We don't have a good mood right now to run out on the streets and convince people to vote for us," said Eli Moyal, a Likud activist and mayor of Sderot, a town in the northern Negev. "We can't smile now because we're in a big mess."

Ephraim Ya'ar, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University, said he expects a clearer campaign picture to emerge in the next week, based on developments along three fronts that he ranked in ascending order of importance: a possible American war in Iraq, the voting scandal and Palestinian violence.

Ya'ar put the scandal high on the list because voters "see it as undermining the foundation of Israeli democracy and of law and order." But, he warned, "in the political culture of Israel, the most important determinant is the issue of security."

Polls show that if the elections were held today, the corruption allegations would cost Likud as many as nine of the 41 seats it was expected to win in the 120-member parliament. Voters choose parties, not candidates, and legislative seats are proportionally allocated based on the number of votes.

The left-of-center Labor Party led by Amram Mitzna, Sharon's biggest challenger, has been unable to capitalize on the scandal. Likud supporters are defecting not to Labor but to smaller parties, several of them to the right of Likud.

A poll published Friday by Yedioth Ahronoth forecast Likud winning 32 seats. It would be the largest party in parliament, but its ability to form a government without help from Labor is diminishing.

"The Likud Party will win," said Moyal, the party activist. "But it's not going to be the big win that we predicted. It's going to be sad and bitter. This corruption scandal will go with us through the next year, and we could crash."

The votes lost by Likud are being picked up by parties including Shinui, a centrist faction that criticizes the power of religious parties, and Shas, a religious party that trails only Likud and Labor in size and has played a major role in the rise and fall of previous governments. More than 10,000 Shas supporters filled a sports stadium in Tel Aviv last week, the largest rally held so far by any group in this campaign.

Labor leaders have met several times to try to revive their stalled campaign and sell their platform to a public battered by violence and largely unwilling to embrace Mitzna's proposal to resume negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Yedioth poll found that among the Labor Party supporters it surveyed, only 17 percent believed the party had a chance of winning the election. Instead, the party is fighting to hold onto second place, using its campaign time to attack Shinui.

But volatile mood swings are common in Israeli politics, and the final few weeks could prove tumultuous. Any one of the three wild cards - war, scandal or Palestinians - could prove to be the decisive issue. The deteriorating economy also could play a major role. The government said that Israel is in its worst financial situation since the state was founded in 1948.

"What is revealed by the poll is that everything is still open," Yedioth reported Friday. "Whereas up until two weeks ago it seemed that the elections were all sewn up, that the winners and losers could be pointed out, now it is clear that nothing is final yet."

The newspaper said that there is a "feeling of disgust" within Likud and that the coming days will be critical for Labor. If the party does not gain ground, "they will have to take drastic measures," such as toughening its message into an ultimatum: support Labor or vote for a narrow right-wing ultra-Orthodox government.

Other parties are having problems as well, including the small factions representing Israeli Arabs. Israel's election committee has barred two of their candidates from running for office, saying that both have made speeches supporting Palestinian attacks on Israelis and questioning the legitimacy of Israel as a state. The candidates have appealed the ruling to Israel's Supreme Court, which is to rule this week.

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