Netanyahu falters as poll race hots up

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HAS THE magician turned into a rabbit? This is the hope of the multitude of personal and political enemies of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, after the first real clash of the Israeli election campaign. It happened on television, a forum where Mr Netanyahu built his career and usually shines. But in a live debate earlier this week he floundered as Yitzhak Mordechai, his former defence minister and a prime ministerial candidate, accused him of possessing "neither truth, nor honesty nor integrity".

The debate confirms that the election is not about negotiations with the Palestinians, but about Mr Netanyahu's personality. Mr Mordechai, one of an astonishing number of the prime minister's former ministers who now regard him with loathing, told him: "The elections are about you."

Ehud Barak, leader of the Israeli Labour party, now renamed One Israel, and Mr Netanyahu's main opponent, was not even in the television studio, but emerged as the winner. In the run-up to the election on 17 May - with a run-off on 1 June if no candidate to be prime minister gets more than half the vote - Mr Netanyahu's former friends are proving as dangerous as his declared enemies.

It is all very different from the 1996 election, which Mr Netanyahu won by a whisker. Then the poll took place after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister. Palestinian suicide bombers had just killed about 60 people, and Israeli parents were afraid to send their children to school by bus.

Mr Netanyahu might justifiably claim that he has succeeded in removing this threat over the past three years. Many voters feel Israel is a less violent place than it was at the height of the internationally lauded Oslo peace process. Ironically Mr Netanyahu's very success in short-circuiting Oslo without paying the price of an increase in Palestinian violence has its disadvantages for his election campaign. Without a sense of threat from the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu's portrayal of himself as the man best able to deal with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, resonates less with Israeli voters.

Mr Barak has also been busy inoculating himself against the allegation that he is Mr Arafat's choice. In the past week he has announced he will hold a referendum on a final status agreement with the Palestinians. He promised not to withdraw to Israel's pre-1967 borders and to keep Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli sovereignty.

The One Israel leader also has problems with his core support. In 1996 some 83 per cent of the Israeli-Arabs voted for Shimon Peres, the Labour candidate. But this time Azmi Bishara, an Israeli-Arab, is a candidate who will siphon off votes from Mr Barak in the first round of voting on 17 May. Unfortunately for Mr Barak, this is also the day of the Knesset elections in which Israeli-Arab parties are standing. In the second round, with only two Jewish candidates for the prime minister's office to vote for, many Israeli-Arabs may stay at home, costing Mr Barak vital votes. He knows his chan-ces are better in the first round. But he can win at this stage only if Mr Mordechai withdraws. For this reason, many of Mr Netanyahu's supporters think that his failure in the television debate may be to their advantage. It will keep Mr Mordechai, whose campaign was dead in the water, in the race.

During the debate he promised Mr Netanyahu not to withdraw. Nobody knows better than the Prime Minister that such pledges are made to be broken, but the magician of Israeli politics is still a long way from losing his job.

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