Netanyahu fights to win back key Russian voters

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THE ISRAELI election campaign is cheap and vicious and will probably get worse. A known forgery is used by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, to show that his chief rival intends to give up east Jerusalem. A powerful religious party attacks Russian Jewish immigrants for importing call girls, eating pork and building Christian churches.

In the days before the election on 17 May, all parties are campaigning desperately because the outcome is still uncertain. Ehud Barak, the leader of One Israel, formerly Labour, has surged to a 9-point lead over Mr Netanyahu, but there is a saying in Israeli politics that Mr Barak's party "wins with the pollsters and loses at the polls".

Three years ago Mr Netanyahu won the election - by 30,000 out of three million votes - after Islamic Palestinian bombers killed almost a hundred Israelis in the months before the election. This week his television advertising is showing scenes of carnage with the message that, if Mr Barak wins, the bombers will be back.

On paper Mr Netanyahu is in a strong position. He presides over a coalition of parties, which command the loyalties of at least 53 per cent of Israelis. It includes all who feel excluded from power in Israel: Ultra-orthodox Jews, right-wing nationalists, deeply secular Russian immigrants and the working-class Sephardi (Jews mainly from the Arab world).

Mr Barak can rely only on the bloc support of the secular Ashkenazi middle and upper classes and the Israeli-Arab community. He needs to win votes from Mr Netanyahu's coalition to have any chance of victory and his obvious target is the one million-strong Russian community - 14 per cent of the electorate - which voted for Labour in 1992 and against it in 1996.

One tactic to win the Russians is to offer them control of the Interior Ministry, vital to immigrants because it decides who is Israeli. Mr Barak adopted the cause of an Israeli soldier whose mother had been sent back to Russia because she was not considered Jewish.

None of this has anything to do with negotiations with the Palestinians, but it is at the heart of Israeli politics. Giving the Interior Ministry to the Russians means taking it away from Shas, the religious party of the Sephardi, who need it because it controls municipal budgets.

Eli Suissa, the Interior Minister, said the Russians were afraid Shas would "close the stores that sell pork, shut the churches that have sprung up among the new immigrants, bar entry to Christian clergy, stop the forgers, the cheats and the call-girls from entering Israel".

Mr Barak's tactics seem to be working. A month ago he had just 19 per cent of the Russian vote, but this has risen to over 40 per cent according to the polls.

But Mr Netanyahu is fighting back. At the weekend he had a stroke of luck. An actress supporting Mr Barak called his opponents "rabble" from the soukh (market) and imitated a Sephardi accent. The Prime Minister rushed to a soukh and said he also was a member of "the rabble" and proud of it.

Another assault on Mr Barak was less successful. The One Israel leader had 60,000 copies of his campaign biography, modestly entitled Ehud Barak, Soldier Number One, printed in Russian translation. On page 71 Mr Barak is found saying, just after Israel's victory in 1967, that "east Jerusalem is not our land and the day will come when we will have to return it".

This was music to Mr Netanyahu, who promptly reissued his charge that his opponent would divide Jerusalem. Unfortunately it was not true. According to the book's author someone, presumably a sympathiser with Mr Netanyahu, had doctored the text somewhere between the translator and the printer, adding the electorally damaging quotes.

In addition to the loss of Russian support Mr Netanyahu's fall in the polls in the last month is explained by two factors. Support for Yitzhak Mordechai, the former defence minister who is leader of the Centre Party, is collapsing. But his candidacy appears to have acted as a conduit for voters on the right to switch from Mr Netanyahu to Mr Barak.

Mr Netanyahu is also damaged by his own personality. He is not popular among many right-wing Israelis. Among his opponents, including many of his former lieutenants, he is widely detested, often with the sort of visceral hatred that Richard Nixon attracted in the US.

The Prime Minister would like to fight the election on the issue of relations with the Palestinians. Again and again he stresses that he stopped the suicide bombing, stalled Oslo and prevented the declaration of a Palestinian state this week.

So far he has failed to interest the electorate and, unless he can do so, this failure may lose him the election.