Hard times for doves of Israel

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The Independent Online
A dove is at the centre of a furious row between the Israeli Labour party, the right-wing Likud opposition and animal rights groups. It started when Likud produced a television commercial for the election in 10 days' time. It shows a runner holding aloft the blue and white Israeli flag out of whose folds a live dove, symbolising peace, emerges. The message to Israeli voters is that for a patriotic peace they should vote Likud.

The dove and the flag-waving man were originally filmed separately. Unfortunately for Likud an Israeli television channel got hold of an unedited tape of the dove at the weekend. This shows that it is attached to its perch by an almost invisible string knotted to one of its legs. Far from swooping gracefully through the skies, the poor bird is brought up short by its cord after a flight of a few feet and flutters frantically to remain in the air.

Likud is now being denounced for cruelty by animal rights groups. Worse, from the party's point of view, the film of the tethered dove of peace is now being used by Labour in its television commercials. Their point is that under Likud, whatever its pretensions, peace talks with the Palestinians and other Arabs will go nowhere. The film intercuts the frantic attempts of the dove of peace to stay aloft with the faces of senior Likud leaders such as General Ariel Sharon and General Rafael Eitan, the leaders of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which killed at least 12,000 people.

Many Israelis already believe the election of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, on 29 May will effectively end the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, even if they are not formally cancelled. General Sharon, expressing doubts that "the Arabs want peace at all", last week spelled out his party's interpretation of Oslo, which is so narrow that the accords would bring no benefits to Palestinians. He adds that a settlement with Syria will be postponed until after the departure of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

It is surprising, given that the elections next week revolve around the issues of peace and war, that most Israelis agree they are the most boring since the foundation of the state. Debate is muted and the turn-out at party rallies small. This may be partly explained by emotional exhaustion after the dramas of the last six months, which have seen the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, suicide bombs in the heart of Israeli cities, and a savage little war in Lebanon.

But the election is boring mainly because Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, and Mr Netanyahu want it that way. Both are vulnerable. Mr Netanyahu was almost destroyed politically by the murder of Mr Rabin last November. In the months before the assassination he whipped up crowds of far-right supporters with denunciations of the government's betrayal of Israel. The last thing Likud wants is overenthusiastic rallies which remind voters of Mr Netanyahu's demagoguery and its consequences last year.

For different reasons Labour also wants a cool campaign. It needs to show the 72-year-old Mr Peres as an elder statesman, contrasting his long experience with Mr Netanyahu who is only 46 and has never run anything. This is certainly the way Mr Peres sees himself. At moments he appears too wrapped up in his vision of himself as a world leader to fight an effective campaign. There are signs of regal arrogance such as his appointment of his Russian teacher to be Labour's only Russian immigrant candidate, though Russian Jews are more than 10 per cent of the electorate.

Neither candidate for the prime minister's office is much liked. Mr Peres was once described by Yitzhak Rabin as an "inveterate schemer". Six months in office has not changed his reputation for shiftiness. By way of illustration, Nahum Barnea, an Israeli columnist, describes how his barber in Jerusalem praised Mr Peres to the skies as a statesman and personal friend. Seeing that Mr Barnea did not believe him the barber proudly took a framed picture of Mr Peres out of a drawer, which is signed: "With affection, Shimon Peres." "Why don't you hang it on the wall?" asks Mr Barnea. His barber throws up his hands in amazed contempt and says: "Do you think I am crazy enough to lose all my clients?"

Fortunately for Mr Peres, Mr Netanyahu may be detested by even more voters. Labour supporters regard his promise of peace for Israel without territorial compromise as grossly irresponsible. They remember Leah Rabin almost refusing to shake hands with him at her husband's funeral, saying "It's too late" to regret his previous behaviour. Mr Netanyahu is much disliked and privately maligned by his own senior lieutenants. Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan normally refuse even to stand up when he joins them on a platform.

Yet there is something unstoppable about Mr Netanyahu. In a rich, hectoring baritone he minimises setbacks and endlessly claims that his victory is inevitable. In the last two months he has deftly united the right-wing parties behind his candidacy. He will get all the ultra-orthodox vote even though a "hot" video was once circulated allegedly proving adultery on his part. In his tactical adroitness, ability to use the media and unrelenting aggressiveness he resembles Newt Gingrich, the US Republican Speaker of the House.

It may be that Mr Peres will persuade Israeli voters that the dove of peace stands a better chance of prolonged flight with him in the prime minister's office. Mr Netanyahu does not accept the Oslo accord though he says he would not reoccupy Gaza and the Palestinian towns of the West Bank.

In practice, however, it may be a poor outlook for doves in Israel this year regardless of whether Mr Peres or Mr Netanyahu wins. The polls show that the Knesset (parliament) as a whole will shift to the right compared with the 1992 election. There will simply not be enough votes in parliament to support terms the Palestinians could accept and the Oslo accords will begin to unravel.