Two main right wing opposition parties join in effort to defeat Peres


IN A risky move aimed at maximising their chances of defeating Mr Shimon Peres's government in this year's election, Israel's two main right wing opposition parties are joining forces.

Mr Peres is now almost certain to bring forward the general election from its scheduled October, 29th date to May. In the battle for the post of prime minister, most opinion polls put him between 15 and 20 points ahead of the opposition Likud leader, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu.

The polls also show Mr Peres's Labour Party and its smaller allies heading for a majority in the 120 seat Knesset.

However, the right wing merger is designed to change all that. Instead of competing with each other for right wing votes, and fighting each other and Mr Peres for the premiership, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Rafael Eitan, leader of the Tsomet party, are now uniting.

Mr Eitan is withdrawing his candidacy for the premiership, having secured the guaranteed position of Mr Netanyahu's deputy should the right regain power. And both men insisted yesterday that a united front would bring momentum to their campaign and votes come election day.

Mr Peres professed himself unfazed. "They're travelling together, but they don't know where," he scoffed, pointedly referring to the current confusion on the Israeli right about how to face up to a peace process with the Palestinians that, for all the right wing objections and scepticism, is currently progressing relatively smoothly.

And, indeed, it is by no means certain that the partnership will benefit the Israeli right, despite claims that private opinion polls show the unified front yielding a huge boost in support.

For Mr Netanyahu, whose Likud holds 32 seats in the current Knesset, the perceived benefits include the removal of an irritating fellow challenger for the premiership, the enhancement of the Likud's status as the dominant opposition party, and a hoped for invigoration of the right wing campaign.

Still, some moderates in the Likud were yesterday already voicing objections to the partnership, saying that Tsomet would push the Likud farther to the right, yielding more of the crucial central electoral ground to Labour.

For Mr Eitan, the former army, chief of staff notorious for once having referred to Arabs as "drugged cockroaches in a bottle", one clear benefit is that a right wing victory would presumably see him installed in the position he has craved since the early 1980s minister of defence.

But Mr Eitan's supporters have their reservations, too. The gruff, blunt talking former general has somehow maintained a reputation as a Mr Clean despite a colourful personal life, and repeated bitter run ins with close political aides.

And his party has a reputation as a champion of secular values in the face of attempts at religious coercion. Those unique electoral assets could well disappear as Tsomet's separate identity is subsumed in the merger with the far larger Likud.