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Israel: Expert Analyzes Pre-Election Political Situation

Prague 23 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Following are excerpts from an interview on Israeli politics with Zoe Danon-Gedal, an expert on Israeli internal affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

Danon-Gedal weighs the challenges before Israel's competing political leaders as they prepare to campaign in early elections now expected in April.

She says that outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to take a tougher line toward the peace process at the start of his campaign in an effort to eclipse more hardline rivals, but move toward the center later to win broader support from the electorate.

"I think it is probable that [Netanyahu] will moderate his positions on the peace process but not initially. I think his initial concern as Israel moves toward elections will be to consolidate the right, and he is likely to take a tough stance on the peace process to try to avoid competition from further to the right for prime minister. But as it gets close to the election he will have to move toward the center in order to get 50 percent plus one of the votes and avoid a run-off. Or, even in the case of a run off, he will need support from the center and it is at that point, maybe starting in about March, that one would be likely to see him make some progress on the peace process and sound more moderate."

Danon-Gedal says Netanyahu must overcome resistance from hardline elements in the right wing who accuse him of giving away too much Israeli land in the peace process. He also is vulnerable to charges across the right wing that he has not been a trustworthy and competent leader.

"From the nationalist right, Benny Begin, the son of former prime minister [Menachem] Begin has announced that he will probably run and he would have tremendous support from the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox and people who formed the basis of Netanyahu's support when he won in 1996. [Those are the] people who were very energetic in campaigning for him in going door-to-door in seeking his election and that would be a tremendous problem, even though Begin could not win the election and win among the entire country [but] he could chip away from Netanyahu's support. And then from the ranks of the Likud there are other [competitors] who would stress not their ideological differences from Netanyahu in terms of the peace process, but more issues of personal trust and integrity and competence, and they would try to seek the support of, I think, a large block of the country which would like to see the peace process move forward with the security gurarantees that Netanyahu was promising but who are offended by Netanyahu at this point and his reputation for lying to everybody and for causing problems in the relationship with the United States."

But the analyst says the right wing will back Netanyahu in an election against left wing and centrist opponents.

"[Netanyahu] has a tremendous credibility problem with the right wing [but] where that would stop is when it was between him and someone seen further to the left, for instance [Labor leader Ehud] Barak, then they would certainly still see Netanyahu as the lesser of two evils."

Danon Gedal says that a probable dark horse, former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, may not be able to organize a centrist party in time to be a serious challenger in early elections.

"In polls right now [Shahak] would beat both Netanyahu and Barak, the Labor leader, hands down [in elections]. The issue is that he still is in a military career, which is highly respected in Israel, he hasn't really had a political life at all or come out and made too many public statements. As soon as he does, he is bound to offend someone or other in Israel and I think his polling will go down then. He also doesn't have time if elections are held in April, which is when people are talking about, to build the kind of party apparatus that is necessary to really run elections [and that] would give both Labor and Likud a tremendous advantage over him."

She says the opposition Labor Party has strong chances in the electons:

"As a party, they are very strong. They actually have a lot more members of the Knesset from the 1996 elections than Likud did. It is only because of the new direct election of the prime minister, which only took effect in 1996, that Labor is not the head of the [ruling] coalition. There has been a traditional problem in terms of [Labor leader] Barak himself being able to engender a lot of enthusiasm and it remains to be seen whether he with the help of his new campaign team and the energy from recent political events will be able to turn that around."

The analyst says that neither Likud nor Labor favor forming a national unity government unless election results force them to do so:

"If either Labor or Likud finds that they win in such a way that they are able to form a coalition without the other, a viable coalition, I think they would prefer to do that. A lot of outsiders in the country are hoping that there will be a national unity government because they think that is the only way that the country will be able to move forward in the peace process, since it doesn't seem like either party alone has the authority or the legitimacy with the entire political spectrum to move forward, but I think that neither party will be willing to do that at this point until they see ... the results of the election campaign."

She says despite their bitter rivalry, Likud and Labor are not far apart in their stands on the peace process.

"At this point [Labor leader] Barak with his new campaign team is trying to paint economics as an important [difference] and it is something that Israelis are angry about -- they are angry about the unemployment rate, the difficulty in getting a new budget, the drop in foreign investment. But on the peace process, which is the largest issue, there is surprisingly little difference between the two candidates in terms of what they are actually willing to give up and what their conditions are. I think the difference is more in tone and perception and the relationship they have with the Palestinians. Both are willing to exchange land for peace, both are adamant about maintaining Israel's security in that process, both say that the Palestinians will end up with some form of self-government that will not include aspects of sovereignty that could endanger Israel. Now if Barak is willing to call that "statehood minus" and Netanyahu wants to call it "autonomy plus" there is still not that much difference about the fate that they are talking about for the Palestinian entity. And in terms of trading land for peace, there just is not that much difference, it would end up being more in numbers of kilometers than in philosophy.

Danon-Gedal says that future actions by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will play a role in the early election results:

"He will end up, ironically, becoming a player in Israeli politics, though it is hard to tell exactly how his behavior will [have an effect]. It could be that if he continues to talk about [declaring Palestinian] statehood on May 4 it would strengthen Netanyahu's hand. Or, it could be that that would lead the Israeli public to think "we need a change in leadership, we are heading for trouble, that Netanyahu brought us to and [now] we need a change." So, Arafat's conduct over the next few months will definitely play a role in Israeli politics."