Israeli political campaigns borrow a lot from rugby


JERUSALEM -- Americans made politics a national sport. Israelis play it like rugby.

Israel's national elections campaign is a rough-and-tumble affair that makes the American campaign-- even with its Genifer-with-a-'G' disclosures and old, scarlet letters to draft boards -- seem like a scholarly debate.

Start with Yitzhak Rabin's drinking. The alcoholic consumption habits of the Labor candidate made a quick and fluid appearance on the agenda of the ruling Likud bloc.

Never mind that these are no more than rumors, maybe true and maybe not, or that Mr. Rabin served as a seemingly sober prime minister from 1974 to 1977. Likud campaigners now work the crowds at Labor rallies, chanting "Go home to your cognac."

They also have been distributing full-color leaflets picturing Mr. Rabin holding a wine glass, marked "Danger." It offers plastic cups printed with an appeal for a "clear-headed" prime minister.

Then there is Mr. Rabin's "breakdown." Weeks before the outbreak of the 1967 war, he collapsed from depression and exhaustion, and surrendered his post as Army chief of staff to a deputy for a day. He returned to lead Israel's forces to a lightning six-day victory.

The ruling Likud wants voters to forget the victory and remember the collapse. It postponed the June 5 anniversary ceremonies for the war until after the June 23 elections. It set up a special telephone line in which excerpts of an unflattering account of that episode is enthusiastically read to callers.

One of Likud's advertisements says: "Rabin can't stand up to pressure. He isn't fit to function as prime minister."

As to the matter of standing up, some of the Labor Party's advertisements have been conspicuously filled with dwarfs, an unsubtle mockery of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's diminutive size.

The Labor Party has sniffed at the Likud's tactics, but its harrumphs are unconvincing. A Labor official outlined in detail an old allegation they would not talk about: that Mr. Shamir was involved in the killing of a fellow member of the Jewish underground Lehi "Stern Gang" organization before Israel's statehood.

"It would be a mistake on the part of the Labor Party, for example, to use talk of the fact that Shamir murdered a Jew during the Lehi period," said Labor Knesset member Chaim Ramon.

Nor, of course, would the Labor Party talk further about the suggestion it floated last week that the slight shaking of the head and hands of Mr. Shamir, 76, is due to Parkinson's disease.

So much for issues.

The style of campaigning may explain why the main candidates are old and grizzled veterans of the Israeli political process, the toughest survivors of the fray.

Many campaign stops turn into brawls. Stalwarts on both sides routinely heckle at the other's rallies. One favored tactic: a steady stream of whistles to drown out the candidate.

The political discourse at these events is less than enlightening: "Shamir is a maniac!" shouted a protester at a recent Likud rally. "Rabin's a queer. Rabin's an SOB," came the response.

It is more entertaining than a speech by either Mr. Shamir or Mr. Rabin, who both have deadly monotones. Police have been called on more than one occasion to break up fights, and the chief of the Israeli elections committee has warned the parties to keep their supporters in line.

The candidates respond with angelic expressions.

Mr. Shamir made a call last week for the public to refrain from violence; Labor retorted that he should have placed the call to his own campaign headquarters.

This is a small country where personal appearances count. But there are advertisements in the media. The radio spots sound like jolly ads for a used-car lot, but the bright jingles sandwich bitter character assassination and boasts about who can be toughest with Arabs.

It has all been too much even for the Jerusalem Post, which rarely shies from an editorial blow below the belt. The reputation of the two candidates is unimpeachable, the paper said this week, and the "revolting" mud-slinging should not be allowed "to cheapen and distort their image."

Next to the editorial, the Post's caricaturist had a fine picture of Mr. Shamir . . . rooting through a pile of Mr. Rabin's dirty underwear.

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