In Political Battle, Labor Party Pushes Rabin's Military Successes

YITZHAK RABIN is clearly uncomfortable. Standing on the podium waiting to be introduced to a hall full of applauding supporters, deafened by the Labor Party campaign song blaring over the loudspeakers, he seems unsure whether to wave or to clap along. His hands hover in front of him and finally settle on the back of a chair.

Performing a walkabout a few hours earlier on the main street of Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, the Labor candidate for prime minister had seemed equally ill at ease, as his handlers steered him through the crush of security men and TV cameras to share a few words with a passerby. An uncertain smile fixed on his face, he dutifully uttered the obligatory pleasantries.

The campaign stump is not Mr. Rabin's natural milieu. But at every opportunity this soldier-turned-politician reminds his audiences of where he has felt most at home in life - in uniform, or on the battlefield.

Recently in Bat Yam, addressing a group of World War II veterans - immigrants from the former Soviet Union - Rabin started by pointing out that "I too am a veteran," and recalling that he had been Army chief of staff during Israel's victorious Six-Day War in 1967.

He was similarly introduced at a campaign stop in the lower middle class town of Lod, though few in the audience could have forgotten that it was also here that Rabin won his first military laurels as commander of the elite "Palmach" unit of Jewish fighters that captured the town in 1948.

This is the sort of image designed to go down well in towns such as Bat Yam and Lod. And Bat Yam and Lod are the sort of towns where Rabin is going to have to chip away heavily at the ruling Likud Party's vote if he is to become Israel's prime minister in the June 23 elections.

In block after featureless block of hastily built, aging apartments live tens of thousands of conservative Israelis who have been loyal to the hawkish Likud for the past 15 years.

This year, though, Labor campaigners sense a change. "At the last elections, we couldn't get in to a place like this," said Zvika Steinberg as he handed out Labor campaign stickers in Bat Yam on Monday. "Labor workers just couldn't come here. But this year it's quiet, and people are happy to take our stickers."

LABOR strategists are pushing hard on the theme that after a decade and a half of Likud rule, Israel needs a change. But they are pushing hardest on the personality of Rabin himself, using the new party leader as their campaign ace.

In a manner borrowed directly from US political campaigns, Labor has made Rabin's personality and past the cornerstone of its efforts. Other party leaders, including Rabin's longtime rival Shimon Peres, have been invisible, crowded out by the top candidate's lugubrious face staring out from hoardings, T-shirts, buttons, leaflets, and stickers.

"Rabin, King of Israel," shout his supporters at their rallies. "Israel is waiting for Rabin," runs the chorus of the party campaign song.

If Rabin lacks the fire and charisma of a savior, he can draw on his extensive background in the military and in public service to present Israeli voters with a solid record. He naturally dwells longest and most often on his leadership of the Israeli Army at its finest hour, in 1967. And though Likud has made much of the fact that just before the war broke out, Rabin delegated his command to his deputy for a day, suffering from stress, the Labor leader managed to defuse the issue with a series of candid interviews explaining the incident.

Rabin can also point to his time as Israeli ambassador to Washington as evidence of his international experience, though he prefers to gloss over the illegal bank account his wife maintained there, which sparked a political scandal in 1977.

He also recalls his spell as prime minister from 1974 to 1977, and his period as defense minister under the national unity government from 1984 to 1990, when he publicly advocated "breaking bones" as the way to quell the Palestinian uprising.

If Labor is to win this month's elections, it will be this background and Rabin's gruff soldierly manner that will help the party to victory, not his speaking style or his affability.

But as he plods the campaign trail, revisiting the scenes of his past military glories, Rabin knows that this is his last political battle. At the age of 70, he is seeking one last victory.

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