Likud takes poll gamble with anti-Arab general

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The Independent Online


Bluff, no-nonsense soldiers have always appealed to Israeli voters, but even this cannot quite explain why General Rafael Eitan, the former Israeli chief of staff, is playing such a crucial role in the Israeli elections, now expected to take place on 28 May.

Twelve years ago General Eitan, invariably known by his army nickname, Raful, was found by an Israeli government inquiry to have failed to prevent the massacre of 800 Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps during the invasion of Lebanon, which he commanded. It said his failure to stop the slaughter was "a dereliction of duty".

Criticism like this was never likely to damage the general, who entered politics in 1983, in the eyes of right-wing nationalists whose enthusiasm for his views only increased when he compared Palestinians on the West Bank to "drugged cockroaches in a bottle".

More mysterious is General Eitan's success in running as the Mr Clean of Israeli politics. This is despite the revelation in 1994 that he had diverted government campaign funding to a children's charity, which happened to be run by his mistress, Ofra Meyerson. Ten years earlier he had cashed in on his popularity by selling bottles of olive oil from his farm, which he personally autographed. An investigation revealed the oil was rebottled from factory barrels.

Yet it is to an alliance with General Eitan and his right-wing Tsomet party that Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, the largest party of the right, is looking in order to win the elections for prime minister and the Knesset.

General Eitan agreed to withdraw his candidacy for premier in return for a deal which will give Tsomet eight seats in the next parliament.

It is a big gamble by Mr Netanyahu. By merging with the far right he may alienate voters in the centre. Members of Likud are angry at their chances of a seat in the Knesset being reduced because the quota of safe seats given to General Eitan's men. Ultra-orthodox voters may think the general too secular. The row over the deal with Tsomet is a blow to Likud, but the shift to the right might work if there are more suicide bombs or any other deterioration in Israeli security.

Other Likud leaders delayed the agreement until yesterday, demanding that it be watertight and legally enforceable. Their fear is that General Eitan might be bought off by Labour after the election and abandon his new allies. They show little inclination to rely on his loyalty alone. Perhaps they recall the words of Yoash Tsiddon, a former air force colonel who was number two in General Eitan's party in the Knesset before the 1992 election, when he was suddenly dumped.

"I found he was somebody who was not true to his word, who was 'flexible' as to his principles, while promoting exactly the opposite image," Colonel Tsiddon told the magazine Jerusalem Report. He added: "His reputation for honesty has been challenged by every senior officer who knew him the army. They claimed it was a facade."

Facade or not, Mr Netanyahu clearly believes that Raful can help him win the election and, if he is right, then his new ally will occupy an important place in the next government. This will not be good news for peace negotiations with the Palestinians. As chief of staff in 1980 General Eitan told a meeting of senior officers: "We have to do everything to make [the Palestinians] miserable so they'll leave ... [All Arabs] should all be finished off."