Netanyahu's many enemies put a blight on his campaign

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The Independent Online
WHEN ISRAELIS vote tomorrow it looks as if they will replace Benjamin Netanyahu with Ehud Barak as Prime Minister of Israel. Every poll over the past week has shown Mr Netanyahu dropping further behind. For the first time more than half of the Russian immigrants say they will vote for Mr Barak.

Mr Netanyahu himself looks shaken by the speed of the collapse of his political fortunes. On every side he sees former allies deserting him. He has quarrelled with his campaign advisers - "He trusts nobody," says one of his party's officials - and he and his wife Sara personally rewrite election advertising before it is aired.

His one hope now is to win time by forcing the election into a second round on 1 June, which will happen if Mr Barak fails to win more than half the votes. The latest polls show the Prime Minister trailing 35.5 per cent to 48.5 per cent behind the Labour leader. Mr Barak's victory would probably be guaranteed if Yitzhak Mordechai, the Centre Party leader, whose support has plummeted, decides to drop out. Yesterday Azmi Bishara, the Arab Christian candidate, was said to be on the point of quitting, which would be a boost for Mr Barak.

The problem for Mr Netanyahu is his own personality. Some 42 per cent of voters say they would feel bad or very bad if he was re-elected. "The aching hatred in the hearts of all of Netanyahu's opponents will bring them en masse to the ballot boxes," said Hemi Shalev, the Israeli commentator.

Intense rivalry between leaders is a feature of Israeli politics, but only Mr Netanyahu has seen his most senior and popular ministers set up a party with the sole aim of bringing him down. The desertion of Mr Mordechai, his popular Defence Minister, to become standard bearer for the Centre Party four months ago inflicted wounds from which he has never quite recovered.

Mr Netanyahu had hoped to fight a different type of campaign, similar to the one he won in 1996. Then the issues were how to stop suicide bombing, and negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. This time round voters see the election as being about Mr Netanyahu himself and how far Israel should be a secular or religious state.

Mr Netanyahu is aggrieved by this. He feels that he fulfilled his promise to water down further the limited concessions made to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords of 1993. Autonomous Palestinian enclaves remain isolated cantons on the West Bank, surrounded by increasing numbers of Israeli settlements. The one million Palestinians in Gaza live in a state of siege. Three years ago Mr Netanyahu's opponents warned that, if he tried to do this, the Palestinians would explode into a new intifada (uprising). Instead nothing is happening. Israeli voters may have a shrewd suspicion that this will not last. If Mr Netanyahu has stalled Oslo, he has not reversed it - much to the disappointment of the 180,000 settlers on the West Bank. He has also paid a heavy price in terms of diplomatic isolation: for the first time Yasser Arafat is a more frequent visitor to the White House than the Israeli Prime Minister.

Mr Netanyahu has a simple explanation of why his achievements have received no recognition. He told one Israeli TV interviewer: "For three years you journalists have been mobilised against me, the vast majority of you. The journalists have turned into Barak's propagandists." There is some truth in this.

The Israeli intelligentsia has always loathed the Prime Minister. Asked his opinion of Mr Netanyahu's government a year after it took office, one distinguished professor of political science in Jerusalem could only shout down the phone: "Gangsters! Gangsters! Gangsters!" Zev Chafets, a columnist in the Jerusalem Report, writes: "Netanyahu looks less like a candidate for prime minister than don of a particularly squalid Mafia family."

Many of Mr Netanyahu's remaining political allies are under criminal investigation by the police. One of the most powerful of them, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, was sentenced last month to four years in prison for accepting bribes. Police leaked the fact that they are recommending the indictment of Ariel Sharon, the Foreign Minister, for corruptly influencing a witness in a libel suit.

Mr Netanyahu has always had a taste for seamy political operators. But the antipathy of the Israeli establishment as a whole is adding to his troubles. The evidence against Mr Deri was strong, but the timing of the verdict after a nine-year investigation and trial looks geared to the election. At a critical moment in the campaign Mr Barak himself was conveniently cleared of damaging allegations that he abandoned soldiers wounded in a training accident. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's best chance of switching the election agenda from his own personality to confrontation with the Palestinians collapsed last week, when the High Court ordered him not to take over Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu might have survived this. Antipathy to the Israeli establishment runs deep in the coalition he led to victory in 1996. But over the past month this coalition has begun to break apart. Moroccan-born leaders of Shas have launched shrill attacks on Russian immigrants as crypto-Christians, pork eaters and prostitutes. The poor in underdeveloped towns and working class suburbs note that three years of Mr Netanyahu's free market economics have done them little good.

The ultra-orthodox are rallying behind the Prime Minister, but their support is a poisoned chalice, because many voters are in an anti-clerical mood. Shinui, a newly formed maverick party whose platform is to roll back ultra-orthodox influence, might get four seats in the Knesset.

After three years in office Mr Netanyahu might simply have made too many enemies and gained too few friends to survive. They scent his blood and are closing in for the kill. Ehud Barak, the close-mouthed former chief of staff and Labour leader, is finding that he just has to keep his mouth shut and watch his opponent's campaign disintegrate.