Election hangs on Israelis' divisions

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IN THE last weeks of the Israeli election campaign, the mud hurled by the opposing parties is getting thicker and nastier.

Aryeh Deri, leader of Shas, the third biggest party in Israel, which represents religious Jews originating in the Middle East, claims hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants are not really Jewish and eat pork. The Russians say they are fed up with being portrayed as low life.

When political advertising on television started this week, the secular party, Meretz, showed an Israeli couple listening on the phone to their son describing his wedding in Cyprus. The point is that the control of marriages in Israel by Orthodox rabbis often forces Israelis to get married abroad.

Israeli elections are as much about the balance of power between the country's sub- cultures - such as the secular elite of European origin, Russian immigrants, ultra- Orthodox and Israeli-Arabs - as they are about negotiations with the Palestinians or the foreign policy issues that absorb the outside world.

Professor Baruch Kimmerling of Hebrew University says: "Election campaigns are a part of an ongoing cultural war built into Israeli society."

There are at least six different communities jockeying for power. For example Yisrael Ba'aliya, the main Russian immigrant party, which is led by Natan Sharansky, has made winning control of the Interior Ministry central to its campaign. This matters to the Russians because the ministry decides who is eligible to be an Israeli citizen and who is deported. The Yisrael Ba'aliya campaign slogan - unveiled this week and considered particularly astute by political commentators - runs: "Interior Ministry to Shas? No! Interior Ministry to us."

In other words, kick out Shas, which currently controls the ministry and has used it to funnel money to its own supporters. Yisrael Ba'aliya's campaign manager says that when he tested this slogan on 200 party activists the room "went wild with applause".

The fact that voters have two identities - as Israeli citizens and members of their own sub-culture - makes life difficult for party leaders. It is easy to put a foot wrong. One Israel, formerly the Labour party and the main opposition, was derided in the press for political idiocy when it failed to put Russian subtitles on its advertising.

Fragmentation in Israeli politics was much increased by the system of split votes adopted before the last election in 1996. A voter now casts two ballots: one for the prime minister and one for a political party.

With their first vote, the electorate can now express their collective identity as Israelis by electing the national leader of the country. With their second they can opt for a party representing their own ethnic or religious interests.

As a result, small parties have grown in strength. One Israel and Likud, the party of Benjamin Netanyahu, have difficulty moving outside their core constituencies. One Israel is the establishment party of the middle and upper classes of Ashkenazi (European) origin which, as the Labour party, ruled Israel from independence up to 1977.

Ehud Barak, its leader, has even apologised for Labour's past treatment of the Sephardi (Jews originating in the Middle East) but to little avail.

Mr Netanyahu's task is a little easier. One Israel has only won one election outright since 1973. Its secular tradition offends religious and Sephardi voters. Likud is adept at building alliances with all those who feel excluded from the Israeli establishment. Nevertheless the election will be close. Some 400,000 Israelis are first-time voters in an electorate of 4.3 million and Mr Netanyahu won by just 30,000 votes in 1996.