Parties Take a Rear Seat in Israel Vote

Separate ballot for prime minister emphasizes personality in election

Some are calling it the "virtual" election campaign. Certainly Israel has never seen anything quite like it before as the major parties and the candidates for prime minister gear up for what is widely regarded as the most crucial election in the country's 48-year history May 29.

Despite the shooting Wednesday of a Labor Party activist who was putting up election posters, the campaigning has been more restrained than in the past. The focus has shifted from the parties toward the two candidates for prime minister.

Several factors make this year's campaign unusual and make the close race between Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu almost impossible to predict:

*Rules that require separate votes for prime minister and representative in the Knesset (parliament) have created something new in Israeli electoral politics. Most Israeli analysts agree that the winning candidate for prime minister will be in a strong enough position to form the new government by striking a deal with smaller parties. These parties are likely to hold the balance of power in what is expected to be a close election between the two major parties.

"It's a new system, and it requires new tactics," says Hebrew University political scientist Avraham Diskin. "Both Labor and Likud are focusing more on personalities than before and less on parties."

"The campaign has completely changed because it is a contest between two men, and the parties no longer matter," agrees Amiram Rotem, a Jerusalem voter, reflecting some of the frustration of a shell-shocked Israeli electorate.

The separate vote for prime minister has also changed the approach of smaller parties, many of which are keeping their options open for the horse-trading in the Knesset.

The leftist Meretz Party is stressing that it is the only party other than Mr. Peres's own Labor that is calling on its members to support Peres come what may.

*The new electoral system, which has required all parties to hold United States-style primaries before the election, also may have created a fatigue factor. "I think the primaries have tired voters out," says Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld.

*The assassination last November of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has tempered campaign rhetoric. "There is not much below-the-belt stuff in this campaign because after the Rabin assassination people are being careful about how much heat they generate," Mr. Wolfsfeld says.

The first incident of violence occurred Wednesday when Labor activist Arthur Yurovsky was shot in the legs while putting up election posters. The incident dominated the news briefly but is generally seen as an isolated incident.

According to campaign watchers in the Israeli media, there has been far less street conflict than in previous elections. "There's never been an election campaign like this before," says Arik Bachar, foreign editor of the populist Israeli daily Maariv.

"The issues are more crucial and stark than in any previous election, and yet the campaign is very civilized ... very un-Israeli," said Mr. Bachar before Wednesday's shooting.

"While people are very involved in debating the issues, I think they are more restrained and cautious about what they are saying," political scientist Diskin says. "They are aware that if they are too extreme in their utterances, it could boomerang."

Recent opinion polls show Peres and Mr. Netanyahu are separated by only five percentage points, with 8 to 9 percent of the electorate still undecided.

"I think that the parties are focussing on these undecided voters who, by definition, are centrist voters and not extremists," Diskin says. "So the message has to be more moderate and persuasive."

*Another factor is the threat of a major terrorist attack, an event that some analysts and pollsters say would lose Peres the election. Peres's comfortable lead against Netanyahu was erased by four suicide bombings in February and March that killed 59 victims.

CONCERN about an attack has increased with the disclosure of details about a would-be bomber who accidentally detonated his bomb in Jerusalem April 12 while trying to assemble it. Police disclosed yesterday that the injured bomber is a member of Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbullah who entered Israel on a false British passport on a flight from Zurich, Switzerland.

'There is a communal fear that something very unpleasant will happen before the election and that keeps people on edge," says Bachar, the journalist. The tension was evident at an election rally held by Likud leader Netanyahu in the low-income Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikvah. Netanyahu was ringed by jumpy secret service guards, and police convoys patrolled the streets during his visit.

There is also a sense of confusion about what actually distinguishes the two major parties as they vie to be seen as the custodians of peace and security in their radio and television commercials and public appearances.

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