In Israel, election season masquerades as state of anarchy; Race for prime minister features nastiness from left, right and in between


JERUSALEM -- Fascist slogans, a jeering television audience, flying chicken parts, break-ins, death threats. Anarchy in Israel? No, it's the election campaign for the country's next prime minister.

This is politics Israeli-style, down and dirty, and months before the May 17 primary. The nastiness cuts across the political spectrum, from the left to the right and everything in between. It breaches the ethnic divide in a society where Jews from Arab countries traditionally have been shut out of the power game long dominated by their countrymen of European origin.

And it's nothing new.

Hecklers have disrupted political meetings since the 1960s. And candidates for offices as high as prime minister have been the targets of hurled tomatoes.

"There is no understatement [in Israeli politics]. There is [only] overstatement," said Gideon Doron, a Tel Aviv political scientist. "Don't try to convince by being civilized. This is not effective."

Since new elections were called in December, the political atmosphere has heated up.

In announcing his candidacy for prime minister, retired army Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "dangerous" for the country. When he campaigned in a Tel Aviv market last month, the merchants who are known for their ultraconservative views hurled peppers, cucumbers and chicken parts at him.

"This is what I saw with my own eyes. People were so angry they tried to actually hit him," said Mody Kreitman, an Israeli political reporter.

Also last month, the Washington offices of a political consultant advising Labor leader Ehud Barak were broken into twice.

The break-ins raised the specter of Watergate and led to accusations that the theft of computer disks and files was politically motivated. The burglary is under investigation by Washington police with assistance from the FBI.

This week, the invective dominated a television political show that featured Netanyahu and two challengers, Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, the ousted defense minister who is leading a new centrist movement.

Members of Netanyahu's hard-line Likud party packed the television audience -- before Labor supporters could do the same. Netanyahu left the hall as Barak entered. Then, the Likud members began shouting a slogan -- a play on Barak's name -- that repeated accusations that the former army chief of staff abandoned dying soldiers during a failed military exercise in 1992. Barak couldn't finish a sentence.

Raising his hands, the moderator pleaded with the crowd to show respect. The chairman of Israel's broadcasting association has since banned live audience from the government-owned channel.

"There was never anything like this on television," wrote Anat Tel-Shir of the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. "Tears and shouts on a live broadcast, the smell of blood in the air, the scent of violence."

The raucous broadcast followed by a day another political controversy. The Likud unveiled its new campaign slogan, "Netanyahu: A strong leader for a strong people." It prompted charges by his challengers and some historians that the slogan smacked of fascist rhetoric and was undemocratic.

Netanyahu countered that Barak's call for "one leader for one united people" was not unlike Adolf Hitler's slogan "One people, one leader." He called Labor's comparison "a cheap smearing" attempt to prevent the Likud from "using the simplest words to express the simplest truth."

Israel's leading Holocaust survivor organization rebuked the candidates. "Casual invoking of the Holocaust opens old wounds and trivializes the very real suffering of this fragile population," a statement from the group said.

But the slogan hasn't offended many Israelis. A recent poll reported in the Israeli press found that 77 percent of Israelis surveyed did not object to the Likud slogan.

"The truth is election campaigns in Israel were always very heated," said Yosef Lapid, an Israeli commentator. "This is not an exception. We are a very intense and politically minded, and not very polite, sort of a people."

Others also attribute the tone of recent campaigns to the dogged, aggressive style of Netanyahu and his American political consultant, Arthur Finkelstein. The length of the Israeli campaign and the dominance of television seem to have contributed to the tone of the contests.

"Sometimes people come here, and they think everybody is shouting at each other," said Uri Dromi, a government spokesman under the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "This is the way Israelis talk. But I think part of it has to do with Netanyahu, with what he brought to the political culture in Israel: the style of always attacking, always smearing your opponent. This is what Finkelstein brought."

But Amnon Lord, a political commentator who supports Netanyahu, disagreed. For years, the Labor Party dominated electoral politics in Israel. And it continually sought to delegitimize the opposition Likud party, he said. But then the Likud won the elections in May 1977 and Menachem Begin, the party patriarch, was sworn in as prime minister.

"Ever since then, there has been a deep social antagonism" between the camps, he said.

The political debate, said Limor Livnat, a Cabinet minister and member of the Likud, has to be conducted "in a reasonable way that allows everybody to talk. But the Labor Party hasn't ceased for one moment to blame the Likud."

Several political observers predicted the campaign rhetoric would get worse before it got better.

"Campaigns about issues can be very boring," added Dromi, an analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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