Peres aims to strike while Likud slips up

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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

"Just as I don't think that a bullet should kill democracy, by the same token I don't think that a bullet should be my mandate to govern the country," Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, said in London this week.

In Israel his remarks were taken as a sign that Mr Peres will go for early elections, probably in May. After all, if he felt so strongly that he needed a fresh mandate after the assassination in November of Yitzhak Rabin, his predecessor, why did he not call an election at the time?

The answer is, of course, that Mr Peres and the Labour Party feel that they can win an election now. Polls yesterday showed that Mr Peres would beat Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, the main opposition party, by 16 per cent. The right is still badly damaged by the backlash against it after the murder of Mr Rabin.

There are other strong arguments for the government to dissolve the Knesset by the end of the month. Negotiations with Syria in the US appear to be going nowhere and can only damage Mr Peres and Labour. Giving up the Golan is unpopular with the Israeli electorate, and Mr Netanyahu would love to fight an election on the issue of peace with Syria rather than peace with the Palestinians.

A sea-change in Israeli politics in the last three months is seen in the sudden popularity of the Oslo accords. Voters support them by 59 per cent, with 24 per cent opposed. Six months ago Israeli voters were evenly split. Support for Oslo may increase further if Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, persuades the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, to revoke the clauses in the Palestinian charter calling for the destruction of Israel. If this happens in April, the Labour campaign will get a further boost.

All this leaves Mr Netanyahu and Likud in desperate trouble. Last year he played successfully on Israeli security fears in the wake of a series of suicide bombings; he raised the political temperature, only to see his strategy end in disaster when Mr Rabin was assassinated. Leah Rabin, the widow of the murdered prime minister, said she would sooner shake Mr Arafat's hand than Mr Netanyahu's.

The obvious course for Likud is to change its policy and accept Oslo. Earlier this week Ronnie Milo, the powerful Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, said bluntly: "... the time has come to accept [the Oslo accords] and hold negotiations with the PLO and with Yasser Arafat." Probably Mr Netanyahu would like nothing better, but if he suddenly embraces Oslo he will be denounced by diehards like Benny Begin, the son of the former prime minister, as an opportunist and a hypocrite. A change of front now might do him more harm than good.

With Labour in such a strong position, why are so many of its members nervous? On the four previous occasions Mr Peres has led Labour into an election, he has failed to win. Many Israeli voters find him slippery and Machiavellian. This is why he was replaced by Mr Rabin for the 1992 election. It will surely be difficult even for Mr Peres to lose against a candidate as badly damaged as Mr Netanyahu. But Labour might lose the Knesset, because this year, for the first time, Israelis vote separately for prime minister and parliament.

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