Call it the battle of the paratroopers. All three leading candidates for prime minister in Israel’s May 17 election— Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak—won their wings and red berets in the country’s legendary special operations units. All of them fought, together or separately, in some of the most audacious Israeli gambits of the 1970s: rescuing hijacked airline passengers overseas, raiding Beirut, kidnapping Syrian intelligence officers. And despite the far-off election date, all three have already begun to wage militarystyle campaigns—which in Israel means lightning attacks, staying quick on your feet and fighting dirty when you have to.
Shahak, who only hung up his chief of staff’s uniform in December after six months’ leave, fired the first salvo at a press conference last week, launching his muchanticipated bid at the head of a new centrist party. “Netanyahu is a danger to Israel,” he declared. “Netanyahu must go.” The prime minister responded by accusing Shahak of the kind of “incitement” that ended with the assassination of Labour prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Shahak’s broadside, commented political analyst Hemi Shalev in the popular daily Ma’ariv, defined the essence of the election. “It is not a struggle between ideologies,” he wrote, “but a referendum, a very personal one, at the centre of which lies Netanyahu’s personality.” Netanyahu, 49, was forced to go to the polls 18 months early after losing his parliamentary majority and forfeiting the trust of many of his own Likud party ministers and MPs. After struggling to hold a seven-party coalition of
right-wing and religious parties together for two and half years by trying to please all of the people all of the time, he ended by pleasing none of the people none of the time. The Wye peace agreement, signed with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Washington in October, was the last straw. To the nationalist right, its schedule of troop withdrawals from the West Bank was a betrayal of the Jewish claim to all of the ancient homeland. But when Netanyahu tried to appease them by delaying a second pullout, the opposition, which backed Wye, rolled up its parliamentary safety net and all sides agreed to hold new elections.
Both Barak, 56, and Shahak,
54, contend that they alone can topple Netanyahu. Labour’s Barak, another ex-chief of staff and Israel’s most decorated soldier, projects himself as the head of a party that has ruled the country for 36 of its 50 years of independence. He has served his political apprenticeship—albeit a crash course— over the past four years as parliamentarian, minister and opposition leader. He has made some awkward moves—such as declaring that if he were born a Palestinian he would probably have joined a terrorist organization at some point—but he has lately sounded more confident with every speech.
The telegenic Shahak may be the spoiler. He turned a deaf ear to appeals, voiced above all by Rabin’s widow, Leah, not to split the left
and risk letting Netanyahu back in. To Shahak, Labour carries too much historical baggage, especially among the half of the population whose families immigrated from Arab countries and still haven’t forgiven the European-dominated party for its patronizing reception of them. Most voted for Netanyahu last time. Shahak believes enough of them might back a new face, committed to dialogue and mutual respect, to give him a chance.
The amiable, articulate Shahak’s main claim to their allegiance is that he is neither the divisive Netanyahu nor the cocky Barak, and is untainted by the grime of politics. “He tries to look tough and sometimes sounds a bit cynical,” veteran military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai told Maclean’s. “But he’s a mild person who can be very emotional. He knows how to make people like him and do what he wants them to do. He’s very much in control of himself, though it’s very easy to hurt his feelings.”
Shahak projects himself as Mr. Nice Guy, healing the rifts in Israel’s turbulent society. He acknowledges that the Palestinians are on their way to a state, but says he will make sure it doesn’t threaten Israel’s security. He is ready to trade territory for peace with the Syrians, but won’t commit himself on how much. He won’t pull Israeli troops unilaterally from the death trap of South Lebanon, but will negotiate an orderly withdrawal.
A Gallup poll published the morning after he launched his campaign found Shahak trailing Netanyahu and Barak in a three-way contest—with Netanyahu at 33 per cent, Barak at 32 and Shahak at 20. But the results also suggested that Netanyahu would lose to either of the other two in a runoff, scheduled for June 1 if no candidate tops 50 per cent first time out. Netanyahu also faces challenges from the right— notably from archconservative Benny Begin, son of late prime minister Menachem Begin.
Shahak’s established rivals hope the long campaign will show up his political inexperience. “Shahak is a man in his mid-50s who has hardly lived one day as an ordinary civilian,” says Yossi Beilin, a former Labour minister. “I am not prepared to take the risk, just as no one would be prepared to be a passenger in an aircraft I was piloting before I had learned to fly.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, remains a formidable contender who is often seen as more popular with the people than he is with other politicians. The voters still have four months to decide.
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