Israeli political campaign gets into gear


JERUSALEM --Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister and the leader of the new Kadima Party, has been renamed Smolmert in an effort to label him dovish and left-wing (smol is Hebrew for left).

Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, the former prime minister known as Bibi, is pictured as shifty-eyed, bloated, anxious and untrustworthy, giving himself pep talks ("I can do this; I'm the Bibi").

Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born leader of the Labor Party, is portrayed as an inexperienced socialist simpleton, with Israel's Russian-born voters reminded of how much he looks like Stalin.

The Israeli election campaign, after a sad, slow start with the severe stroke suffered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is in gear, with the kind of negative and niche-oriented advertising regularly deplored in all of the democracies that practice it.

The political advertising campaign began yesterday, three weeks before Israel votes March 28. But the campaign so far has been stunted and modest, with few parties promising a glowing future of peace and prosperity to a country somber over Sharon and Hamas' victory in the Palestinian legislative elections.

The shadow of Sharon, in a coma since a Jan. 4 stroke, hangs over this election. Sharon had been expected to win easily, with Kadima, which he formed late last year, getting as many as 44 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.

His successor, Olmert, his longtime deputy in the Likud Party, is struggling to refurbish and burnish his own political profile.

Opinion polls show a steady slippage for Kadima, a party that combines the centrists of the old Likud; the symbol of the old Labor Party, Shimon Peres; and Laborites unhappy with the rise of Peretz, the former leader of the country's main labor federation.

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