Israel's Own 'New Hampshire'

ISRAEL'S political scene is ablaze. On Feb. 19, Labor's Siamese twins, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, will face off in a primary election that may conclude their 18-year rivalry. The next day, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir will be challenged in Likud's nominating convention by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon and by Foreign Minister David Levy. Of all these candidacies, only Mr. Rabin's holds promise for Israel's future.

Neither Mr. Sharon nor Mr. Levy will depose Mr. Shamir. But the 76-year-old premier is expected to retire before his 80th birthday. The scramble in Likud's convention will kick off the struggle for Shamir's succession.

The Labor Party's American-style primary, unprecedented in Israel, means that the wide public, rather than a few thousand party hacks, will choose directly a candidate for prime minister. This gives Rabin an edge.

After Labor's defeat in 1977, Mr. Peres rebuilt the demoralized party. But while he consolidated his position as party leader, and despite an impressive stint as prime minister, Peres failed to reverse Labor's unpopularity among working-class Israelis of Middle-Eastern background.

Labor supporters want an electable candidate, and Peres has failed four consecutive times to defeat Likud. Many Israelis see Peres as a schemer who, as defense minister, undermined then-Prime Minister Rabin and later, as foreign minister, launched his own foreign policy above Prime Minister Shamir's head.

Peres finally lost political altitude when he tried two years ago to entice marginal parliamentarians to defect from right to left in return for powerful governmental appointments, so that he could become prime minister.

Israelis of all walks respect Rabin, who at age 25 commanded 1,000 teenagers in some of the fiercest battles of Israel's independence war, and 19 years later led the Israeli Army to victory in the Six Day War. Rabin transformed smoothly into a statesman when, as ambassador to Washington, he lay the foundations for Israel's most crucial alliance.

The shift to politics was more painful, however. The war hero appeared indecisive and uninspiring, a shy man with very few close friends, a colorless public speaker with a deep disdain for ceremony and public relations. In 1976, after two years as premier, he was forced to resign. But Rabin has come far since then.

In the last 15 years, Rabin managed to maintain his political ground despite ongoing attempts by Peres to sideline him. As minister of defense he personified the average Israeli's attitude when he advocated concessions for peace, while also making it clear that anti-Israeli violence will not be left unanswered.

During the most difficult days of the Palestinian uprising, Rabin was the only Israeli leader who came up with a viable plan for dialogue, when he proposed to hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza. He also launched the first-ever deep cuts in the defense budget, including the scrapping of a multi-billion-dollar attempt to build an Israeli fighter jet.

UNLIKE arch-politicians such as Peres, Rabin's formative years were spent far from the ecosystems of civil service and party politics. "The premiership is for me an option, not an obsession," he said recently, in a stinging reference to Peres's 15-year quest. When he called Peres's wheeling and dealing "a stinking exercise," Rabin expressed many Israeli's disgust with the disproportionate leverage enjoyed by small political parties, and with Peres's submission to their whims.

If elected, Rabin is expected to quickly pass legislation that will diminish the power of small parties, and endorse the election of the premier by popular vote rather than by parliament.

A strong opponent of continued settlement expansion in the occupied territories, Rabin would also redefine budgetary priorities so that employment and immigration absorption would get more attention than they get today.

Peres derives inspiration from his friend Francois Mitterrand, who became president of France after decades in opposition. But polls show Rabin leading Peres by 15 percent, indicating Labor's concern with electability.

Recently arrived immigrants, who will cast up to 12 percent of the votes, can tip the scale come June 23. Selling them a war hero turned diplomat and an honest, practical, and insightful politician, is not impossible.

Rabin is not the Messiah, but he will lead to political reform, to better immigrant absorption, and to a more sincere search for peace. For many Israelis, that would be more than enough.

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