Leading Article: Now Israel needs an old-style leader with a vision of the future

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The Independent Culture
BY THEIR gaffes shall we know them. From Winston Churchill's comparing Labour to the Gestapo, to Gerald Ford's assertion that there were no Russian troops in Poland, mistakes tend to define election campaigns more than pious promises. This week the main opposition party in Israel dropped its clanger. The One Israel Party - the Labour Party there has taken the renaming business a step beyond Blairite modernisation - failed to put Russian subtitles on the television advertisements that opened its campaign. The fuss over this omission underlines the extent to which the Israeli elections on 17 May will not be fought on the issue of peace in the Middle East - the prospects of which they have the power to make or break.

Instead, the campaign will turn on the tensions between the many ethnic and religious groups that make up the Israeli population - the 1 million recent Russian immigrants comprise one of the largest groups. For two decades Labour has been hampered by its elitist image as the party of rich, liberal and secular Jews from Western Europe. Its latest failure to reach out to new arrivals from Russia may suggest to Russian and Middle Eastern Jews that the party has changed its name, not its nature.

This is not a promising start to a campaign upon which much more depends than the sectional interests of one group of Israelis or another. It is no exaggeration to say that the stability of the whole region depends on the outcome. All the parties to a Middle East peace deal face problems of succession, and a strong, well-led Israel is needed - at worst to ensure that the region does not slip back into violence, at best to seize the opportunity for change.

Yet a nation that produced a succession of strong leaders was found wanting when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered four years ago. Shimon Peres, his successor, squandered his inheritance and was replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu, a shallow, right-wing professional politician. What is most depressing about this election campaign is that it is being fought by American consultants with their focus groups, opinion polls and reliance on TV advertisements. None of these is an evil in itself, but when they fill the space that should be filled by leadership the result is likely to be visionless populism. And Israel, more than almost any other nation, needs vision. The Oslo accord in 1993 set a deadline of next week for Israel and the Palestinians to agree on the "final status" of the Palestinian homeland - a deadline that will be missed, but needs to be rescheduled.

The most hopeful outcome would be if Ehud Barak, the old-fashioned politician who leads One Israel, and Yitzhak Mordechai of the new Centre Party, were to do a deal, and if Mr Barak were to tell the Israeli people - with Russian subtitles - that it is in their interest to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbours.