Arabs' wrath possibly cost votes Peres' town closures, Lebanon bombings led to blank ballots


JERUSALEM -- As a final irony, Shimon Peres may have lost the election by trying to demonstrate he was tough with the Arabs.

Peres, who won a Nobel Prize for his efforts to make peace, alienated Israeli Arab voters by his government's April bombardment of Lebanon and iron-tight blockade of Palestinian towns after suicide bombs that killed dozens of Israelis this year.

Many Israeli Arabs cast blank ballots for prime minister rather than support him, and others did not go to the polls. Peres lost to Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu by fewer than 30,000 votes.

How many were affected is difficult to determine.

Abdul Wahab Darawshe, head of the Democratic Arab Party in the Israeli parliament, said 21,000 Arab ballots were blank, not enough to close the losing gap for Peres. But another 49,000 of the 407,000 eligible Israeli Arab voters stayed home.

"Those who killed us were our Arab friends," said a bitter Ra'anan Cohen, an organizer of Peres' Labor Party campaign.

"We received a massive knockout from the Israeli Arab population," agreed Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Leaders of the Israeli Arab community reacted defensively yesterday. They noted that 95 percent of the Israeli Arabs who cast ballots supported Peres.

"We're not to blame. Peres is to blame for his wrong policy toward Lebanon and the Arabs, when he tried to cater to the Israeli right wing," said Darawshe.

Peres or-dered a massive bombardment of Lebanon in April, code-named Grapes of Wrath, in an attempt to halt attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas. Nearly 200 Lebanese died, including 100 civilians huddled at a United Nations camp in Qana, Lebanon, hit by Israeli artillery.

He showed a similarly tough hand in ordering a closure of Palestinian areas, stopping trade, workers and even patients in ambulances into Israel.

"Grapes of Wrath probably put him out of office," concluded Reuven Hazan, a Hebrew University political analyst. "It's ironic that a prime minister leading in the polls would have put his political fortune in the hands of a gunner on the front line."

The bombardment prompted Darawshe and other Israeli Arab leaders to withhold their endorsement of Peres until the last days before the election. Some Israeli Arab activists urged voters to cast ballots for the Arab parties but to put blank ballots in the prime minister's box.

Elections commission officials said 148,681 ballots for prime minister throughout Israel were disqualified because they were blank, marked, mutilated or otherwise invalid. They could not say how many were from Arab areas.

As a low Israeli Arab turnout became evident on election day, Peres personally ordered a last-minute blitz of his top campaign staff to get out the vote. Arab leaders helped: Israeli law bars political candidates from appearing on television during the campaign, except in scheduled ads, so Darawshe broadcast an appeal over Jordanian television, which is seen in Israel. It was an unprecedented boost for Peres by Jordan. By day's end, 78 percent of eligible Israeli Arabs had voted.

"Arabs were the ones who delivered," said Hashem Mahameed, a Knesset member in the Hadash Arab-Communist party. "If the elections had been held the day after Qana, Peres would not have gotten one vote."

Said Darawshe: "I tried to save Peres. It was him to blame, not us."

Pub Date: 6/01/96

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad