Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak fought side-by-side a quarter of a century ago in some of the most intrepid exploits of Israel's crack anti-terrorist unit, the Sayeret Matkal. They freed a hijacked Sabena airliner on a runway. They wrought havoc, on separate commando raids, in Beirut. But Barak ended his military career as a general, Netanyahu as a captain.
The difference showed in their four-month war of attrition. Barak, the Labor challenger, waged a strategic campaign. He identified his targets -- the Russian immigrants, the disappointed, mainly Sephardi, instinctive Likud voters in the depressed "development" towns and big city slums -- and pounded away.
Netanyahu, by contrast, was constantly groping for the theme, the grievance, the soundbite that would kickstart his campaign, discredit Barak and bring the defectors back to mother Likud. He assailed the "Ashkenazi elite." He evoked the trauma of the Palestinian bus bombings that turned the tide against Shimon Peres in 1996.
The trouble was that his audience had seen it all before. The TV magician had lost his touch. He ran up more and more flags, but no one saluted. He looked jaded, isolated and increasingly desperate. In an election fought on personalities rather than issues, he could no longer count on team loyalty. Only his wife, Sara, who held his hand at late-night Likud strategy sessions, kept faith.
By the beginning of May, Barak was pulling steadily ahead, while the defending champion was floundering. As Hanoch Smith, Israel's most experienced pollster, noted, this was the first time in six national elections that the late swing was to the left. The Likud waverers were not coming home. Not yet, anyway.
"What worries Bibi," said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Tel-Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, "is not the gap, but the trend." The daily leaks from the Likud bunker suggested that the Prime Minister's colleagues were already honing their knives and polishing their alibis.
If Barak made mistakes, he quickly corrected them. When Tikki Dayan, a popular entertainer, dismissed Likud voters as "rabble,"he denounced her. When Netanyahu beat him to the punch by running television ads with Russian subtitles, Barak followed suit the next day. When Likud cited the Russian translation of his biography, in which he was said to have declined to buy property in East Jerusalem 30 years ago because it was "Arab," Barak proved that the passage was a forgery (it didn't appear in the Hebrew original or the approved translation).
Yet he never let these diversions deflect him from his course. Likud charges were countered briskly by press release or answers to reporters, but Barak's campaign stayed on target. The voters, TV ads slammed home night after night, could trust Israel's most decorated warrior not to sell its security short. Even the Likud mayor, Ehud Olmert, had said on camera that Barak would "not divide Jerusalem," and Labor mercilessly screened the footage.
Netanyahu, the ads insisted, had failed his own constituency. "If 100,000 lost their jobs, why should this man keep his?" asked one slogan.
The 500,000 Russian immigrant voters who arrived in the 1980s and '90s represent about 14 percent of the total electorate. In the tribal society of Israeli elections, they are the least calcified in their allegiances. In 1992, they put Labor's Yitzhak Rabin in power; four years later, they tipped the scales for Likud's Netanyahu. They threaten to do the same for Barak in 1999.
"If Bibi doesn't get at least 60 per cent of the Russian vote," Hanoch Smith predicted, "he's in trouble." Another leading pollster, Mina Tzemach, reported: "At the start of the current campaign, 70 percent of the immigrants were on Netanyahu's side, 30 percent for Barak. In the past four months, Barak has pulled level."
A Labor advertising blitz in the rightist Russian-language media penetrated the shell of immigrant ignorance about just who Barak was. According to Tzemach, 25 percent of them were learning of his military record for the first time. But it was a Russian party, Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B'aliya, that turned the tide with a blistering assault on Shas' control of the Interior Ministry.
The Sephardi Orthodox party is the immigrants' bete noire. Under its rule, the ministry has challenged the Jewish residence rights of partners, children and dependent relatives of the multitude of Russian mixed marriages. With other religious parties, it denied them civil marriage and divorce, pegged conversions to a radical change of lifestyle, tried to banish pork butchers from the Jewish state. Shas retaliated by calling the Russians church-going pimps.
Sharansky demanded the Interior Ministry for his own party. Netanyahu, the darling of Shas voters and ally of its convicted leader Aryeh Deri, hedged. Barak announced that he would not give Shas the ministry if he formed the next government, and hinted that it would go Yisrael B'aliya.
The response to Sharansky's attack was electric. Semiyon Goldin, a recent Russian immigrant who teaches history at the Hebrew University, confessed he was "shocked" by the intensity of the hatred it unleashed. "The Russians respect Bibi," he said, "but they see him as too close to the religious." The mud is sticking.
The tilt among blue-collar Likud supporters is more an erosion than a swing, but in Israeli elections every vote counts. Peres lost by 30,000, less than 1 percent, in 1996. "The days when we voted Likud without thinking are over," said Yossi Gozlan, a disaffected Likud activist in Beersheba who is backing Barak. "We've started asking who is good for us economically."
With unemployment up to 8.7 percent nationally, and redundancy pushed into double figures by factory closures in development towns like Beersheba, Gozlan's answer is emphatically not Netanyahu. "Bibi's economic performance has been catastrophic," the 45-year-old building contractor told me. "Everything we achieved here has gone backwards."
Yehiel Zohar, the Likud mayor of Netivot, another neglected southern development town, has come out for Barak -- and sent a carload of Netanyahu posters back to party headquarters. The chairman of Likud's Tel-Aviv branch, Bentzi Mordov, has also switched sides.
Daniel Ben-Simon, the Moroccan-born author of "Another Israel", a best-selling study of the 1996 election, detects widespread apathy in traditional Likud strongholds. "There is a lack of passion," he argued. "And without fire and enthusiasm, Likud is a dying machine. Netanyahu will lose not because people there will vote Barak, but because his own people will stay away."
Efraim Inbar, a right-wing Bar-Ilan University political scientist, put a rueful face on it. "What surprised me," he confided, "is that Bibi still has a chance."
Third ManThe most disappointed man in the Israeli elections has to be Yitzhak Mordechai, the Center Party's candidate for prime minister. By the last week of the campaign, his ratings had fallen so low -- barely 7 percent -- that his own colleagues were begging him to pull out and give Labor's Ehud Barak a clear run against Binyamin Netanyahu.
The party chose the former Likud Defense Minister because a private poll showed he had a better chance than another ex-general, Amnon Shahak, of unseating Netanyahu. As a Sephardi, born in Iraqi Kurdistan, he was touted to bring in disgruntled Likud voters.
Pollsters insisted that Mordechai would be more certain than Barak to beat Netanyahu in a second-round runoff. The trouble was that he never looked like getting beyond the first round on May 17.
According to pollster Hanoch Smith, some of the Likud Sephardim who had deserted to Mordechai used him as a stepping stone to go one further. They swallowed their inbred resistance to casting a ballot for Labor, the party that patronized their immigrant grandparents.
When they vote for the Knesset in the current two-tier system, Israelis indulge themselves and vote for sectarian parties -- religious, ethnic, single-issue. But when it comes to electing a prime minister, it seems they like a clear choice.
The other also-rans have fared even worse than Mordechai. Polls showed Benny Begin, a far right protest candidate, taking only 3 percent and Azmi Bishara, the first Arab to run for prime minister, barely 4 percent. Both may well drop out before Monday's ballot.
This has been the least ideological campaign since Begin's father, Menachem, ended Labor's unbroken 29-year hegemony in 1977. By agreeing to two evacuations, however small and grudging, of West Bank land, Netanyahu took the sting out of the Palestinian issue. There are still differences, but they are of spirit and emphasis rather than principle.
"Israelis have resigned themselves to a Palestinian state," said Efraim Inbar, a political science professor at Tel-Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, who sports the knitted kippah of the hawkish National Religious Party. "So the election revolves around personalities, who can do the job, who is the more reliable. It's between my shmendrick or their shmendrick."-- Eric Silver