Electoral boost from Rabin death fades away

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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

As Israel emerges from the trauma of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labour Party has been alarmed to discover that the political landscape has not changed markedly in its favour, and that it will have difficulty winning the election in October next year.

Latest opinion polls show Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, benefiting politically from his predecessor's murder, but the emergence of three new centre parties is robbing Labour of critical votes. If the election were held now, Labour would win 44 seats in the Knesset, the same number it took in 1992. Its left-wing ally, Meretz, would win nine seats, instead of 12.

The danger for Labour is less Likud, the principal right-wing opposition party, than a breakaway faction known as the Third Way, which opposes Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria.

The latest poll suggests that this party would take four Labour seats with another two going to a Russian immigrants' party that was set up by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident. In 1992 most of the 600,000 Russian Jewish immigrants voted Labour.

"The country remains deeply divided," a senior member of the Labour party said. "The gap between the two sides is unbridgeable."

The division between the secular and the religious, which is a traditional factor in Israeli politics, has been greatly exacerbated by the withdrawal from the West Bank, which religious nationalists believe is land that was given by God to Israel. Supporters of Labour and Meretz hold the orthodox religious leadership and Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, responsible for setting the stage for Rabin's death.

Mr Netanyahu has been telling his own party that the collapse of support for Likud in the polls would pass, but his own unpopularity is deep. Even Ehud Olmert, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, refused - unlike Mr Netanyahu - to attend the notorious rally in Jerusalem at which pictures of Rabin as Himmler were displayed.

None of this will be forgotten next October, when Israel for the first time elects a prime minister separately from membership of the Knesset. Mr Peres has never been as popular as was Rabin, but he can almost certainly beat Mr Netanyahu.

In a straight fight, a poll by the daily Ma'ariv shows Mr Peres would get 55 per cent of the vote and Mr Netanyahu 31 per cent. Another poll gives Mr Peres 46 per cent and Mr Netanyahu 28 per cent.

Some members of Likud criticise Mr Netanyahu, whose character resembles that of Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, for his alliance with the far right. But there is little they can do about it. In the unlikely event of a leadership contest, his strongest potential rival, Dan Meridor, would now be considered too liberal for many Likud supporters.

There is no doubt, however, that Mr Netanyahu is worried. A sign is his reported attempt to bring back into the party David Levy, the former foreign minister, whom he was glad to be rid of in June. He is now offering Mr Levy the number two slot on the Likud ticket.

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