Israel's Likud on the Defensive

Labor Party gains ground in election campaign as ruling party's internal rifts take toll

THE differences may have been patched up, but the wounds have not healed in Israel's ruling Likud Party.

And although Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has put an end to an ugly row with his foreign minister, David Levy, the affair has wrong-footed the Likud as Israel's election campaign gets into high gear this week.

The opposition Labor Party, on the other hand, goes into the campaign with a new leader, Yitzhak Rabin, and a list of parliamentary candidates offering broad appeal to the electorate, say Labor activists and opinion pollsters.

"The way it seems now, Labor is on the offensive and the Likud is on the defensive," says Hebrew Univeristy political scientist Yitzhak Galnoor. "If the trend continues, it looks as if we are in for a change of government."

Mr. Levy withdrew his resignation from the Cabinet on Sunday, after last minute concessions by Mr. Shamir persuaded him to stay on. Levy has been promised he will remain as foreign minister and deputy prime minister if the Likud forms the next government, and that he will be able to name one other Cabinet member.

Levy also won a pledge that his followers will be given "just representation" on all party bodies and parliamentary committees.

After holding out against these demands for several weeks, Shamir reportedly told colleagues he had granted them "in the shadow of the approaching elections."

Levy's accusations of prejudice in the Likud against his fellow Sephardim - Jews of oriental origins - had carried with them an implied threat to bolt the party, and without the Sephardic vote, Likud's chances at the June 23 elections would have been minimal.

But Shamir's agreement to Levy's terms has aroused anger in the party leadership. At a meeting of Likud ministers on Sunday, Defense Minister Moshe Arens is said to have accused the prime minister of "capitulating." And while Levy is widely resented in Likud ranks for what is seen as blackmail, the deal has not improved Shamir's growing image as a weak and indecisive leader.

Seeking to calm spirits on all sides, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon urged the party to unite quickly to fight off Labor's growing challenge. But the government's task is not an easy one.

"We will base our campaign on a presentation of our achievements during our conduct of government," says Likud campaign spokesman Yossi Ahimeir, pointing to Israel's participation in the Middle East peace process, the arrival of 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, and new diplomatic ties with countries such as Russia, China, and India.

Labor, however, will be quick to point out that Israel's position in the peace talks - refusing to give up Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, for example - has brought relations with the country's most important ally, the United States, to their worst level.

Nor does the government's record on absorbing the new Russian immigrants offer much scope for a campaign, with 40 percent of them still seeking work, and new arrivals now running at only 4,500 a month, down from a peak of 30,000, as word of the hardships here seeps back to Moscow.

The Likud's "major challenge" as it plots its campaign strategy, says political analyst Ehud Sprinzak, is to convince right-wing voters of its commitment to retaining the occupied territories, while presenting a moderate line in order to appeal to floating voters in the center of the political spectrum.

With three small extreme right-wing parties, Tehiya, Moledet, and Tsomet, snapping at Likud's heels, Shamir has to watch that flank, for fear of losing critical seats to them. But as many, if not more seats are at stake among voters hesitating between Labor and the Likud, according to opinion polls.

Likud is already attacking the Labor list of parliamentary candidates, elected in Israel's first ever primaries, for the number of "doves" it includes.

"Labor has taken a step to the left, and we will make a lot of use of that," says Likud spokesman Mr. Ahimeir. "Likud is the party of the center, the most responsible party," he maintains.

Though the "doves" did fare unexpectedly well in the primaries, the Labor candidates list also includes six former Army generals, to assuage the electorate's fears that Labor might sacrifice security for peace, and the list is headed by one of them, Yitzhak Rabin, a well-known "hawk" on security issues.

"All the factions in Labor are represented on the list, and its composition won't do them any harm," predicts Hannoch Smith, one of Israel's leading pollsters, who says his latest soundings, still unpublished, show a clear trend toward Labor.

"But the fact that Rabin is their leader will redound to Labor's benefit more than anything else I can think of," he adds.

At the same time, Israeli opinion polls have proved unreliable in the past, and "two and a half months in Israeli politics are like two and a half years," cautions Professor Galnoor.

"There is no way we can predict yet who is going to win the elections," he says.

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