Bitter campaign likely as Israel sets poll date


THE arguments went on until late into the night, for day after day after day. Each side accused the other of breaking promises, of ignoring vital factors, of behaving intolerably. Language was less than gentlemanly. Cherished deadlines passed unnoticed. And there were frequent walkouts.

And all that argument absurdly, was over nothing more than setting a date for Israel's general election. Finally, now the Labour government, its main Likud opposition and the various other Knesset parties have found a date they can all live with, May 29th, and campaigning is under way in earnest.

But all the signs are - and the near-farcical arguing over the date only underlines this - that this is going to be a bitterly fought election, with few holds barred even though memories of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination are still fresh.

There may still be almost 100 days until the election, but the key issues and attitudes are already glaringly apparent. The Prime Minister, Mr Shimon Peres, will try to portray himself as the only man capable of completing Mr Rabin's push towards comprehensive Middle East peace.

His main opponent, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, will counter that Mr Peres is so desperate to make his mark in history that he will agree to compromises with the Palestinians and the Syrians that will endanger Israel's security.

And although Mr Netanyahu is 15 to 20 per cent adrift of Mr Peres in the polls, it is he who is making the early running. The Likud's opening gambit this week has been to claim that Mr Peres is ready to sanction partial Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem. "Peres will divide Jerusalem," scream billboards all across the country.

Mr Peres vehemently denies this, insisting that Israeli sovereignty will prevail throughout the city. But his denials are not ringing all that true, especially since most Israelis acknowledge deep down that the city is hopelessly divided already, and know that Israel and the Palestinians are supposed to hold talks on the future status of the city later this year.

Mr Peres has traditionally been reviled by many Israeli voters as slick and duplicitous. At present, his high poll standing shows he is benefiting from a post Rabin sympathy vote. But the Likud hopes to chip that support gradually away.

If it had a candidate more attractive than Mr Netanyahu, it would probably be doing better already. But the thrice married Likud leader is attracting his own, negative image seen increasingly as prone to panic, superficial and, dangerously in an election in which ultra Orthodox Jewish votes will be crucial, remembered distastefully for his confessed adultery.

A third candidate is running for the premiership, the former Likud foreign minister, Mr David Levy. His candidacy could well boost Mr Peres, since it may split the right wing vote.

Certainly, Mr Levy has no realistic prospects of victory, but he does hope a high profile campaign will secure strong Knesset representation for his new centrist Gesher (Hebrew for Bridge) party. He boasts that Gesher will win so many seats that neither Labour nor the Likud will be able to form a coalition without it.

But under Israel's reformed electoral system, coalition building has become less important. It's the race for the prime ministership that really counts. And both Mr Peres and Mr Netanyahu know that's a race which is still wide open.

. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians on the final status of Palestinian territories, which were to begin in May, have been delayed until after the election, television reports said yesterday.