THE WORLD FROM...Jerusalem

Israelis focus on 'domestic' issues as election approaches, but outcome may be determined by global forces

FOR a country that is always highly attentive - some might say oversensitive - to events abroad and their local impact, Israel has grown unusually self-absorbed in recent weeks.

Most immediately, the death of three Israeli soldiers in a Feb. 15 attack on an Israeli Army camp, presumably launched by Palestinian guerrillas, has shocked the country.

It was not only the gruesome manner of their deaths that sparked outrage across Israel. The way the attackers, armed only with axes, knives, and a pitchfork, chose a military target inside Israel indicated a new daring among Palestinian activists.

And the fact that the camp was poorly guarded, unlit, and unfenced, while a handful of raw recruits slept in their tents, smacked of complacent unpreparedness on the part of the Army.

But as the official investigation into the humiliating incident continues, broader events on the home front, most obviously the gathering campaign for June's parliamentary elections, have served to concentrate Israelis' attention on domestic issues.

This week both the ruling Likud Party and the Labor opposition are due to choose their candidates for prime minister, amidst increasingly vitriolic recriminations and the Byzantine maze of deals struck and coming unstuck that characterize Israeli politics.

Here, however, the rest of the world is never far away, and rare is the local issue that is not intimately linked, somehow or another, with the international scene.

Even while the two dinosaurs of Labor politics, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, square off for the last battle in their long rival careers, and as Foreign Minister David Levy and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon wrestle for the mantle of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, politicians are also beginning to focus on the elections.

It is then, in June, that events around the world, especially in the United States and Russia, could determine the outcome.

When Israelis think about Washington now, they think of one thing: The $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel is trying to extract to help settle the 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have arrived in the past two years.

How fiercely the White House presses its insistence that there will be no guarantees unless Israel freezes its settlement activity in the occupied territories, and how far Mr. Shamir is ready to compromise his settlement policy in order to secure the guarantees, are bound to be central issues in the campaign debate.

From an economic point of view, it is clear that if Israel has to manage without the guarantees, it will be able to absorb the immigrants properly only with substantial belt-tightening among the population - not the sort of prospect any party likes to hold out to voters when elections are imminent.

At the same time, if Washington's terms are felt to be too high, Shamir may be tempted to play the "Israeli pride" card in his campaign, presenting himself as an unyielding defender of the country's rights who will not bow to any foreign dictates.

Meanwhile, about 270,000 new immigrant voters from the former Soviet Union have been added to the rolls, and their combined strength could elect as many as eight members of the 120-strong parliament. Were an immigrants' party, such as the one launched Feb. 13, to succeed in garnering just half that vote, it could be in a powerful bargaining position when it comes time for one of the two big parties to form a coalition government.

Mr. Peres is so keen to attract the Russian vote that he has been taking Russian lessons for the past year, to be able to press the flesh more convincingly. Only Labor primaries on Feb. 19, though, will show whether he will get the chance to practice his new linguistic skills.

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