LESS than a month before the Israeli elections, the opposition Labor Party's clear lead in the opinion polls is deepening the disarray that has afflicted the ruling Likud in recent months.
"The party is tearing itself apart," a well-placed Likud official worries. "There is a growing sense that the Likud has lost, and that it is not worth voting for them."
But Labor's optimism is "at the same time cautious," says Shimon Shitreet, a Labor member of the Knesset (parliament) and a key player in his party's campaign. Three weeks are a long time in Israeli politics, and a recent poll found that 44 percent of voters had still not picked their party.
Substantive debate on the critical security and economic issues that will decide Israel's future has been noticeably lacking in the campaign. "There has not been one word about the issues," says Danny Ben Simon, political correspondent for the daily Davar newspaper. "Instead there has been an unprecedented focus on personalities."
That trend was set by Labor, which has staked its all on new party chairman Yitzhak Rabin, whose picture adorns every party poster. When voters go to the polls June 23, they will even find "Labor under Yitzhak Rabin" as the official party label on the ballot paper.
Likud strategists have responded by playing to a personality cult of their own, but not that of their obstinately uncharismatic prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Instead, Mr. Shamir addresses crowds of supporters waving portraits of his predecessor, Menachem Begin, who died in March.
At the same time, the Likud has launched a smear campaign against Mr. Rabin that has earned public condemnation even from such senior Likud figures as Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud tacticians have nonetheless made much use of longstanding allegations that the Labor leader has a drinking problem, and of the way he delegated his command of the Israeli Army to his deputy for 24 hours, just before the Six-Day War in 1967, complaining of stress and physical exhaustion.
This line of attack, Mr. Ben Simon says, "is a long-shot effort to destroy the image of someone who is very popular. It shows how panicky they are at Likud headquarters."
Indeed, Likud officials do not hide their frustration at the way they feel Rabin, a former Army chief of staff, defense minister, and well-known hawk on security issues, is being used to shield more left-wing Labor Knesset candidates from public view.
Trying to overcome this, Likud has chosen the slogan "One big Likud against the left" to emphasize Labor's socialist roots and generally more dovish stance toward the Palestinians.
Rabin's pedigree is a strong card as Labor seeks to pry Knesset seats from the generally conservative, working-class Sephardic voters who make up traditional Likud support.
"Rabin's personality plays an important role" with such potential voters, says Professor Shitreet. "It broadcasts a signal of credibility, reliability, and security. That should be the basis for people to say that he is not a guy to give in [to the Arabs] if it is not necessary."
At the same time, Labor has been careful not to reveal more than the general outline of its policy toward peace talks with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries, "and our detailed program will not be presented," Shitreet says, "because this is a process that will have to be followed by the parties concerned."
A more likely explanation for Labor's deliberate haziness on security issues, however, is suggested by Ben Simon. "Rabin doesn't want to say what he will do in the territories because his purpose is to attract Likud voters, and the strategy is to be as vague as possible" so as to allay fears that Labor would allow the creation of a Palestinian state.
Instead, Labor is planning to concentrate its firepower on social and economic questions, branding Shamir as incompetent and his lieutenants as corrupt.
Useful ammunition in this campaign is close at hand. Unemployment has reached a record 11.6 percent of the work force, immigration from the former Soviet Union has nearly dried up as a result, 537,000 of Israel's 5 million citizens live below the poverty line, and social inequalities are glaring, with the top 10 percent of Israeli society earning as much as the bottom 70 percent.
In the face of Labor's aggressive campaign, Likud officials seem defensive and divided. Foreign Minister David Levy, for example, once one of the Likud's main vote winners among the Sephardic community, is still bitter about his followers' poor showing when Likud chose its Knesset candidates and has not played a role in the campaign.
"The message our activists are getting from the people is, `If you cannot run your own party, why should we vote for you to run the country?' " a Likud official says.
Even with the opinion polls consistently showing Labor at least 10 seats ahead of Likud, the number of undecided voters means there is still everything to play for.
Likud has come from behind to snatch last-minute victory before, political analysts here recall. And a Likud official says he still holds out the hope that "Rabin will make one big mistake.
"If that happens," he says, "everything could change, because Labor [has] gambled everything on Rabin, and outside of that, they have no campaign."