Shooting haunts Peres campaign

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

As Shimon Peres announced he was bringing forward the election date, Israeli television cameras several times swung away from his face to show the chunky figure of his bodyguard. Then it flashed his name, Yoram Rubin, on the screen, and Israelis realised that they were looking at the former bodyguard of Yitzhak Rabin, wounded as he tried to protect the last prime minister.

The presence of Mr Rubin, on duty for the first time since the assassination, underlined that the murder of Mr Rabin will dominate the election. Nor was it the only sign. Mr Peres devoted 20 per cent of his speech on Sunday night to his thoughts and actions on the night Mr Rabin died. "I heard three shots, and my heart refused to believe that something had happened to Yitzhak," he said.

Mr Peres and the Labour Party should win. One poll shows him 22 per cent ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud bloc and right-wing candidate in the separate vote for prime minister. Peace with the Palestinians is suddenly popular. The economy grew by 7 per cent last year. But the law requires a campaign of at least 90 days before the polling day - some time in late May. Labour knows that a few large bombs in Tel Aviv would change the picture drastically.

There is no doubt that Mr Peres is right to dissolve the Knesset now. Israeli politics has been placid despite the withdrawal from the West Bank towns and the Palestinian elections. The settlers and the far right, active and violent in 1994-95, have been keeping their heads down because of the assassination. Yasser Arafat, sworn in as Palestinian President yesterday, is making strenuous efforts to avoid friction with Israel while its troops withdraw.

This passivity may not last. The complicated jigsaw puzzle of competing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza is deeply unstable. In Bethlehem there was a confrontation yesterday between local Palestinian authorities and Israeli troops building a wall to protect Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish holy place. In Gaza there is a dispute about construction of a Palestinian airport. Any of these daily incidents could escalate.

If Mr Netanyahu and Likud win the election then this is likely to happen sooner rather than later. The right is split over what to do over the Oslo peace agreement. A majority of Likud members of the Knesset would like to accept Oslo so far, but cannot say so because of the opposition of a hard core who see the West Bank as the God-given Land of Israel. In effect Mr Netanyahu would probably freeze negotiations, but, given Palestinian expectations, this would probably lead to a resumption of suicide bombing.

Likud and the right are probably still too badly damaged by the assassination to do more than hold their own. The real threat to Labour comes from the new centre parties. Natan Sharansky, leader of the Russian Jewish immigrants, of whom 700,000 have reached Israel since 1989, says his political group will contest the election. He may get as many as four seats. David Levy, the former foreign minister, who split from Likud last year, and the Third Way, a Labour splinter opposed to giving up the Golan, will both win several seats.

Haim Ramon, the Minister of the Interior and one of the most skillful Labour tacticians, said yesterday that he did not think that a party like Mr Sharansky's would last long: "This is a party for one or two terms. The new leaders will become part of the establishment. Mr Sharansky will probably be a minister." Mr Ramon says it is usually the size of the job for the party leader, not matters of principle, which decided the entry of smaller parties into government.

Mr Peres and Labour may be a little over-confident. Israeli voters - doubtful about Mr Peres - have even more doubts about Mr Netanyahu. But he is a formidable campaigner and knows that he is fighting for his political life, because if he loses the election he is unlikely to survive as leader of Likud.

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