Israel's Social Unifier, or Just a Political Survivor?

A self-proclaimed champion of the secular majority, Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo emerges in bid to be premier.

What makes Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo think that he should be prime minister of Israel? Asked that question, he abruptly moves to end an interview. "I don't need to do this," he says.

A question that would be routine for any American political candidate clearly ruffles Mr. Milo, a former right-wing Likud Party member who declared his candidacy for the premiership last month.

His May 4 announcement was timed to ride a wave of outrage among secular Israelis who complain that the Orthodox Jewish establishment has too much clout. But far fewer partners than he expected have jumped on board.

It seemed a safe approach. Indeed, the leader of the opposition Labor Party has been sounding a similar note by introducing legislation that would draft ultra-Orthodox seminary students into the Army for the first time.

But analysts and politicians estimate that Milo's high-profile failure so far to get another major political figure to join him in his bid to form a new centrist party may spell defeat.

Win or lose, his candidacy could have major implications for Israeli politics, affecting negotiations with the Palestinians and the security of the region.

The Israeli left wing condemned his move amid fears that he could be the Ross Perot of Israel's next election: While claiming to represent the middle ground, he would steal votes of peaceniks and pluralists from the Labor Party's Ehud Barak - ensuring victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or another right-wing candidate.

"We need to unite left and right in Israel," Milo says tersely. "As prime minister, I can bridge the gap."

That gap has become more of a gulf. Consider the clash during Israel's recent 50th anniversary celebrations when religious leaders demanded that a dance troupe's act be pulled from the official festivities.

The performance, in which dancers dressed as devout Jews strip down to their undergarments, is set to the music of a traditional Jewish holiday song. Faced with a last-minute "compromise plan" from religious politicians, who insisted that the dancers remain more modestly dressed, the troupe decided not to perform at all.

Milo, long mulling over the premiership, decided to make his move. Seizing on the exasperation of more secular Jews, who saw the dispute as a serious threat to artistic freedom in Israel, Milo played videotapes of the dance at a free outdoor concert in Tel Aviv the next day.

"The fanatic religious censorship imposed by an extreme religious faction marks a crisis in the development of the state of Israel," he said when he announced his candidacy the following Monday. "The question today is whether Israel will be a free country in the year 2000."

But Milo's transition from ultraconservative Likudnik to a proponent of the peace process is viewed by many as more an act of opportunism than an ideological rebirth. Elected to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 1977, Milo built his reputation as a hard-liner in the Likud.

Many recall that when Peace Now demonstrated against Israel's presence in Lebanon, he demonized activists, saying they were funded by the CIA. He later advised right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Milo has become a rare Likud member who supports the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, but some say that was only because he knew it would go over well with liberals in Tel Aviv. His critics say he showed no tendency toward the left until Likud lost power in 1992 - and he lost his ministerial position. Only then did he decide to run for mayor.

"When people make such transformations from right to left, either they are great visionaries or the ultimate inverse," says Amotz Asa-El, the Jerusalem Post's associate editor, who has been tracking Milo's career for 20 years. "There are leaders who paid a severe price to preserve their convictions, but he isn't one of them."

MILO, a lawyer, projects an affability in front of crowds and is popular in Tel Aviv. But many say he kept few of his promises to improve the quality of life there. And with no backing from Labor or Likud, they say, he faces the possibility of losing the mayoral election in November, or winning so narrowly that it would hurt his chances of reentering national politics in the future.

Milo says that polls show he would gain voters on both sides of the left-right political divide, who are generally split over whether or not to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.

Critics say he can only be a spoiler. Just in the way that Mr. Perot drained conservative voters from George Bush in the 1992 US presidential campaign, Milo could siphon off part of the Labor Party's power - paving the way for Mr. Netanyahu to win another election.

The only thing the move is unlikely to spoil is Milo's career. Analysts say this may be his bid to force one of the big parties to take him under its wing. That tactic was successfully used by David Levy, who broke off from the Likud Party to form his own party. In order to make sure that Mr. Levy wouldn't hamper Netanyahu's chances of election in 1996, Netanyahu cajoled Levy not to run with a promise of key appointment, such as foreign minister. (Levy has since resigned from this post.)

Milo, analysts say, also expects to be rewarded with a plum job by one of the two top candidates in exchange for offering to drop out of the race.

"He can get the best deal in town," says Giora Goldberg, a political scientist who specializes in Likud politics at Bar-Ilan University, outside Tel Aviv.

"I don't think he himself thinks that he has a real chance to win," he says. "It's impossible to win an election in Israel without one of the big parties behind you. This is the best way for him to be a minister, and he's smart enough to understand that he cannot do it any other way."

As for a new secular party, it might bring a few seats into the Knesset, but Dr. Goldberg says it would likely end up like handfuls of other centrist "flash" parties that succeed in one election, but don't survive another.

Milo's supporters dismiss such criticism. Six months ago they formed the Atid (Future) Party, and although Milo hasn't yet declared he will join it, the founding members say that's just a matter of time.

"We are a shelf party. I told Milo, 'When you are ready, we'll be here,' " says Ron Peer, one of the founding members. "Most of us believe that Roni Milo is coming from a pragmatic point of view.

"He's the only one who can make a united government without the religious parties," Mr Peer says. "He's the best man in the neighborhood."

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