Israel's election campaign: Don't count Prime Minister Begin out

Against all odds, can Prime Minister Menachem Begin win Israel's June 30 election after all? To a considerable degree the future of this tense Middle East region may hang upon the answer to that question. And, until very recently, it would hardly have even been asked.

Up to now, Israeli pollsters have usually indicated, a decisive lead, if not a landslide victory, for the opposition Labor Party at the polls.The latest sample obtained by the reliable Public Opinion Research Center gives Labor 50 of the next Knesset's (parliament's) 120 seats, Mr. Begin's Likud 23, and seven for the National Religious Party (NRP).

This would suggest that the Likud-NRP coalition, which had ruled Israel since the last election four years ago, will not be able to muster a working majority, even it if can graft the various right-wing splinter parties and factions to its political tree.

But veteran local pundits still are not prepared to sign any guarantees -- for a variety of reasons:

* The "Dayan factor."

* Labor's internal feuds and strains.

* The appeal of the latest Begin economic moves.

The unpredictability of the 1981 election outcome was increased by the advent of maverick Knesset deputy Moshe Dayan, a former chief of staff, defense minister, and foreign minister, as the prospective head of a separate list of candidates.

rafael Gil. director of the Public Opinion Research Institute, quoted in the independent daily Haaretz on March 17, stressed that his respondents were not confronted with the possibility that Mr. Dayan may run as an alternative to Labor and Likud.

Nor has Dayan himself declared unequivocally. He has promised to do so April 2.

American diplomats, as well as local analysts intrigued by the international consequences of the election's results, constantly refer to the "Dayan factor." They suggest that this is the great unknown and predict that the tarnished, though still respected, former war hero may siphon off more votes from Labor than from Likud.

Another development that may cause some slippage in Labor's grip on the voters is its top candidate's failure to come to terms with the man originally tipped as the future finance minister -- Bank Hapoalim chief Yaacov Levinson.

After a series of intensive discussions between Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres and Mr. Levinson, the public was informed that Levinson's demand was too much for Peres: namely, a final say on all Cabinet- level economic posts.

Refusing to let Levinson emerge as Israel's economic czar, with prerogatives allegedly akin to an inner Cabinet, Mr. Peres announced that Mr. Levinson would severe as his economic adviser while a three-man team consisting of the director of a Labor- owned conglomerate, a university president, and an ex-transport minister would get the three main ministerial portfolios that deal with economics.

The benign Peres explanations prompted skeptics to contend that the Levinson hardline cures for Israel's ailing economy were politically undesirable, despite the fact that inflation is running at 150 percent, the trade gap has widened, and the national debt is at an all-time high. (The debt currently is over $16 billion, equal to Poland's and Turkey's, countries much bigger than Israel in size and population.)

Not to be ignored as a vehicle for a possible comeback by the ruling Likud is newly appointed Finance Minister Yoram Aridor's across-the-board slash of excise and purchase taxes on popular consumer goods.

Color television sets, the apple of local shoppers' eyes, suddenly dropped in price by nearly a third, causing a buying spree that had additional cargo planeloads of West German TV's offloading at Ben-Gurion Airport.

And automobiles below 1300 cc were cut in price, too, injecting a massive spurt in previously stagnant sales of new cars.

The salaried public is due for a 200 percent cost-of-living increase by next month, while cost-of-living statistics for February have shown a relatively modest 5.5 percent increase.(Consumer goods were a negligible element in this calculation.)

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