Israelis go to the polls tomorrow in a bitterly contested election that has totally centered on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's personal style and method of leadership.
One moment cuddling a grandchild, the next sending bombers to Iraq, Mr. Begin is hailed by his supporters as "King of Israel," but is condemned as a "quasifascist" by his opponents.
This prime minister, who can whip a crowd at a campaign speech into an emotional frenzy, has become the symbol of bitter divisions inside israele over basic government philosphy ethnic hostilities, and style of government.
His reelection or defeat is seen here as marking a watershed in the direction of Israeli society and relations with the outside world. Writes one Israeli columnist -- a supporter of the Labor opposition -- "Tuesday's election will not be a choice between alternative regimes, but between two different countries."
The high stakes have been reflected in the ugliness of the campaign -- there have been violent incidents aimed primarily at workers and speakers for the opposition Labor Alignment -- and by the extreme volatility of the plubic opinion pools.
A survey taken on June 24 and 25 by one of Israel's major pollsters shows Labor and Mr. Begin's Likud coalition neck and neck at 42 seats each in the 120 -seat parliament (Knesset). This marks a dramatic Labor surge from the same pollster's June 15-18 findings, which gave Likud 49 seats to Labor's 37. But analysts here expect that even should Labor inch ahead, it will have a difficult time forming a governing coalition.
Labor has failed to present dramatic program alternatives to the Likud even while criticizing rampant inflation and Mr. Begin's foreign policy. But Labor's slogan, "anything but Likud," summarizes the anti-Begin nature of the campaign. Labor has launched an urgent appeal to choose Labor to supporters of small left and center-left parties that oppose Begin and to undecideds, who pollsters say are mainly educated Israelis. It urges these voters to submerge their ideological preferences in order to give Labor a plurality so that Israel's President would tap it to form a government. Mr. Peres even overcame -- at party urging -- the deep mutual antipathy he shared with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and invited him, in the name of party unity, to join the Cabinet at the last minute as shadow defense minister.
The sense of urgency suffusing Labor's campaign comes from the realization that a Likud victory would mark a basic reshaping of Israeli political life. In 1977, the Labor Alignment, which had ruled Israel since its founding, lost to the Likud, a party based on the thinking of Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader whose philosophy differed dramatically from that of the dominant Labor Zionist trend. The Likud formed a government coalition around its 42 seats; Labor mustered only 32 seats. The victory for Likud leader Begin, who had spent 26 years in political opposition, was attributed to the emergence of a new reformist middle-class party, the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) which won 15 seats and joined the Likud coalition. With the DMC now defunct, a Likud win in 1981 would prove the victory was not a fluke. It would signal long-range shifts in Israel's domestic political life and in its international relations:
* In governing philosophy, Mr. Begin would be freed to openly pursue the precept of his late mentor, "revisionist" Zionist leader Jabotinsky. The latter espoused building a greater Israel, including what now is the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the jordan. (He compromised on his claim to the area east of the Jordan River.) Moreover, Jabotinsky firmly believed that Jewish armed force, not diplomatic compromise, would ensure the existence of a Jewish state.
Mr. Jabotinsky clashed under the British mandate with leaders of the dominant Labor trend of Zionism who advocated pursuit of diplomatic compromise with the Arabs and the British. (This ultimately failed.) His individualist also economics clashed with Labor Zionism's socialism. The debate continues today between Labor leadership and Mr. Begin.
Mr. Begin has said that he would never return the occupied West Bank to Arab rule and would continue large-scale building of Jewish settlements there. Labor argues that occupation of a large Palestinian population against its will must inevitably threaten Israel's democratic system, alienate world opinion, and jeopardize Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. However, Labor's alternative -- pursuing negotiations with Jordan over return of heavily populated Palestinian portions of the West Bank -- has been rejected by both Jordan and the Palestinians.
Mr. Begin has adopted the "tough" Jabotinsky approach in other areas of foreign relations: for example, his verbal attack on German, British, and American leaders seen as insufficiently friendly with Israel, and his military attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Labor, while indicating it would have attacked the reactor as a last resort, argues for more diplomacy. Labor shadow foreign minister Abba Eban says his party "would avoid the abrasive insults and boastful threats which are the individual hallmark of Likud diplomacy under Mr. Begin."
* In domestic affairs a Likud victory would probably foreshadow the demise of Labor's domination of the country's political and economic bureaucracy.
The 1977 Israeli parliamentary election signaled an open dissaffection from Labor by Israel's "oriental" Jewish population -- those Israelis originating from Arab-speaking countries or their native-born offspring. Often low on the education and economic ladder, they make up a majority of the population but had been neglected politically and economically by Labor. Over the past four years Labor failed to win back this constituency. They have become a mainstay of the Likud not because of Mr. Begin's philosophy but because they admire his tough, emotional style. To them he represents the anti-(Labor) establishment even though he is prime minister.
Both Labor and Likud have accused each other of fanning "oriental" Jewish hatred toward the Alignment, which is dominated by Jews of European origin (Ashkenazim). Neutral leaders, like Moshe Dyan, have called for leadership that will bridge -- not exacerbate -- this dangerous ethnic divide.
* Mr. Begin's style of government has caused great alienation among large segments of the Israeli intelligentsia and general public, while arousing admiration among his supporters. He has been accused of threatening democracy by the Labor opposition both in his speaking style and, they charge, by encouraging campaign violence.
Labor has run advertisements accusing Mr. Begin of "a violent tongue" and recalling his high-pitched address in 1962 to an angry crowd opposing the Israeli government decision to accept German reparations money. Mr. Begin told the crowd, "This will be a war of life or death"; later the crowd stormed the Knesset building.
Some critics, however, allege that the greatest threat to democracy is Mr. Begin's virtual solo performance in government, gradually eliminating all challengers from his Cabinet.