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Palestinian Suicide Bomb Sets Agenda For Israel March Election

by Peter Hirschberg

Sharon Minus Likud Equals... What?

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- The Israeli rescue services had hardly finished evacuating the dead and injured from the scene of the suicide bomb blast in the coastal town of Netanya that killed five people on Monday, and already the speculation was under way.

What will be the impact of the first bombing on the 2006 election campaign? Will Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who has been championing a social agenda, lose support? Will it benefit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who left his Likud party to form a new centrist list? Or, will the hard-line Likud, which has accused Sharon of encouraging Palestinian militants with his Gaza pullout, be the real beneficiary?

Palestinian violence has had a defining impact on the outcome of election campaigns in Israel since the 1980s, almost always assisting the challenger in ousting the incumbent prime minister.

After a wave of Palestinian knife attacks in Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was ousted by Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin in the 1992 election. Former Labor leader Shimon Peres twice lost elections because of terror: In 1988 he failed to get elected after a petrol bomb thrown at a bus near the West Bank town of Jericho killed a mother and her three children just days before the election. In 1996, he surrendered a double-digit lead in the polls after a string of Hamas suicide bombings that left 60 Israelis dead, and was narrowly beaten by then-Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2001, just months after the collapse of the Camp David peace talks and the eruption of the Intifadah uprising, Ariel Sharon trounced Labor prime minister Ehud Barak.

By this logic, Sharon should be having sleepless nights. He will certainly be hoping that if terror does escalate as election day on March 28 draws closer, he will be able to defy the pattern of previous elections.

He may well do so: Even though Sharon ceded Gaza to the Palestinians, he did it unilaterally and refused to engage in negotiations. Since the move was also mixed with a heavy dose of skepticism toward the Palestinians, it could provide the prime minister with a measure of immunity when it comes to terror attacks like the one in Netanya.

The Israeli public, which increasingly believes that Israel cannot continue controlling the Palestinians, but does not believe an end-of-conflict agreement can be reached with them, viewed Sharon's Gaza pullout as a bold and pragmatic gambit.

Most vulnerable, it seems, is Labor leader Peretz. He has focused his campaign almost exclusively on socio-economic issues, accusing the Sharon government of having increased the gap between rich and poor, and of exacerbating poverty in Israel. He has conspicuously steered clear of security issues.

Since his surprise election in the Labor primaries a month ago, he has succeeded in setting the agenda, forcing politicians to address social, and not just security, issues. After Peretz's election, Sharon suddenly discovered that there were poor people in Israel, and he declared a "war on poverty."

Inside the Likud, meanwhile, the various candidates vying for party leadership have all been desperately trying to outdo each other in portraying themselves as defenders of the poor. But the bombing, for now at least, has extinguished the social debate. And Peretz has looked distinctly uncomfortable with this sudden shift.

He rushed to issue a statement condemning the Netanya bombing -- he promized an "uncompromising war" on terror -- and he hastily gathered the ex-generals in his party for a shadow cabinet-type consultation on the attack that seemed essentially a photo-op. Both actions seemed to accentuate the sense that Peretz, the former head of the country's labor union, feels vulnerable when it comes to security issues.

A poll released Tuesday evening by Israel Television confirmed this vulnerability: over 50 percent of the respondents said they trusted Sharon, a former general, to deal effectively with Palestinian attacks; only 13 percent felt Peretz would know how to respond effectively were he prime minister.

If violence escalates, though, Sharon could become vulnerable to criticism from the hard-line right, headed unofficially at the moment by Benjamin Netanyahu. The former finance minister resigned in protest over the Gaza withdrawal in August, and is now the frontrunner in the race to replace Sharon as Likud leader. He and others in his party have attacked Sharon, arguing that his decision to pull out of Gaza has been an incentive to militant groups to continue their attacks.

Just hours after the bombing, hard-line Likud lawmaker Uzi Landau called the Gaza withdrawal a "surrender to terrorism" and "a sign of things to come" if the government continued yielding territory to the Palestinians.

With the dovish Shimon Peres having bolted Labor to back Sharon, the Likud will also try to portray the prime minister as having shifted dangerously to the left -- a message that will have greater traction in an atmosphere of escalating violence.

As has been the case in almost all of the six election campaigns in Israel since 1988, it may again be the Palestinians -- at least the militants among them -- who get to shape the outcome.

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Albion Monitor December 7, 2005 (

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