The Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trailing Mr Peres by 15 per cent in the polls, evidently sees Jerusalem as his best card. The right's traditional weapons - emotionalism and expansionism - have been blunted by the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, and the successful transfer of authority within the West Bank. The question is whether Mr Netanyahu can make the Jerusalem charge stick - and whether he can sustain its appeal through a bruising, four-month contest.
Posters unveiled yesterday proclaimed: "Peres will divide Jerusalem." Mr Netanyahu presented the election as a referendum on the disputed city, which Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. He alleged that secret negotiations were already being conducted with the PLO and that Yasser Arafat's national authority was being allowed to establish a bridgehead in the city.
Mr Peres responded with a categorical denial that any authorised negotiations were taking place. The Prime Minister reiterated Labour's policy that Jerusalem would remain Israel's "undivided capital".
Ron Pundick, one of two Israeli academics involved in the negotiations that produced the 1993 Oslo breakthrough, insisted that similar exploratory talks on possible solutions for Jerusalem had no official standing. Saeb Erakat, a member of the recently elected Palestinian Legislature, confirmed that there had been discussions, but no negotiations.
"I wish I could believe Peres," Mr Netanyahu said, "but I have a hard time believing him. He is pursuing salami tactics with the Israeli people. The fact that there are talks is not contested. Only their nature is disputed." As evidence of political division already taking place, he said that Orient House, the PLO's base in Arab East Jerusalem, was functioning like a foreign ministry. Another 10 offices of the Palestinian authority were operating there. So was the Palestinian internal security service.
Mr Netanyahu declined to call the Prime Minister a liar. It was a matter, he said, of policies not personalities. But unless there is a drastic change in the opinion polls, Likud's campaign can only become more desperate - and more personal.Reuse content