Israel's top politicians sat together at a common Cabinet table Sunday morning for what they hoped would be one of the last times, then spent the rest of the day denouncing one another as an election campaign billed as one of the most crucial in the country's history drew officially to a close.
Final pre-election public opinion polls indicated that Labor and Likud, Israel's two major parties, were locked in a race too close to call, with a strong possibility that they may be forced into another uneasy coalition with each other.
Israelis will cast their ballots Tuesday, but the final televised election commercials appeared Sunday night. Little campaigning was planned for today as party workers turn instead to such tasks as arranging transportation for as many of the 2.9 million registered voters as may need help getting to 5,000 polling stations around the country.
Influenced by nearly 11 months of Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, this campaign has been dominated by the most pointed debate in a generation over the future of the territories and the broader issue of peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.
Shimon Peres, foreign minister and head of the center-left Labor Party, advocates withdrawal from some occupied land in return for peace and promises to take Israel into an international conference to bring an end to the cycle of Middle East violence.
Shamir Sees a Trap
Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister and head of the rightist Likud Party, contends that such a conference would be a trap for Israel and that the most the country can safely afford is to grant limited autonomy to Palestinians in the territories while keeping control of the land.
The two archrivals have been yoked in a so-called national unity government since 1984 when an inconclusive vote left neither with enough seats in the 120-member Knesset, or Parliament, to form a ruling alliance with an array of smaller parties.
Polls published Sunday by the Hebrew-language Yediot Aharonot suggested a similar outcome this time. One conducted by the Dahaf agency, which has worked for Likud in the 1988 campaign, predicted 40 Knesset seats each for the two big parties, with the remaining 40 seats divided evenly among smaller parties that lean to the right and to the left.
A poll by the Decima agency, which has worked with Labor, indicated a 42-38 seat advantage for Peres' party and a 63-57 edge for the left bloc. However, the left's projected total includes at least seven seats for two predominantly Arab lists that are traditionally considered anti-Zionist and therefore unfit as coalition partners for the mainstream parties. The two are the Communist-dominated Hadash and the Progressive List for Peace, which advocates a deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"I have tried since this morning all kinds of combinations," confided a senior Shamir aide Sunday, after reading the survey results. "None of the parties can form a government if those polls are correct." He predicted "another coalition between Labor and Likud" after long weeks of hard bargaining to hammer out a common approach to the peace and security issues.
A top Peres adviser described his camp Sunday as "very tense" but "hopeful," encouraged by polls that indicate Labor will have enough strength to at least block Likud from forming a government. In that case, Labor assumes it will be able to win over enough of the small religious parties, which would otherwise be in the Likud camp, to take power on its own.
In any event, the present national unity coalition will continue to govern until the issue is settled through intense multi-party horse trading after the vote. The party with the most seats usually gets the first chance to form a government, but in a close contest the process of finding coalition partners can take several weeks.
Polls Often Inaccurate
Independent analysts stressed that Israeli polls are notoriously inaccurate. In each of the last three national elections, they have underestimated Likud's strength by as much as three or four Knesset seats.
Shamir capped his party's campaign at a big rally Sunday night in Tel Aviv. Using the biblical names for the West Bank preferred here, the prime minister pledged in a final television appeal before Tuesday's balloting to "put an end to the wild violence in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. We will not allow the Arabs to dare harm the Jews in their homeland."
Speaking before an enthusiastic pro-Likud audience at a "Victory Rally" in Jerusalem the night before, Shamir ridiculed his rival's plea for a chance to make peace. "What (Peres) is actually saying to the people is: 'Close your eyes. Shut your ears. Don't think. Trust me!' " Shamir shouted. "Is there a nation in the world which would decide in this way about its future and its security? By giving one man 'a chance?' What is this? A lottery?"
Peres skipped any big, climactic rallies. "It's only an ego trip for the party itself," an aide said. Instead, the Labor leader ended his stumping as it began--in a frenzy of appearances beginning in the south of the country, around Beersheba, and ending in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
'No Time to Rest'
"There's no time to rest," Peres told Yediot Aharonot during a stop in the Negev desert town of Dimona, which is known as a Likud stronghold. "Every vote is important. I want to speak to as many as possible."
Labor was viewed as a slight underdog throughout a campaign that has been based mostly on fear.
As Likud stressed the dangers of an international conference, Labor based its arguments on what it euphemistically termed the "demographic issue"--unless Israel gives up Gaza and the most heavily populated areas of the West Bank it will be overrun by Arabs and the country will lose its Jewish majority soon after the turn of the century.
Labor mounted a blatant "good cop-bad cop" appeal, putting forward Peres as the champion of peace while also capitalizing on Labor Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's "iron fist" reputation in combatting the Palestinian uprising. In one notable speech before a clearly hard-line audience, Rabin boasted that he had deported and detained more Palestinians without trial than any Likud defense minister before him.
Peres Termed Untrustworthy
Likud's primary message is that Peres is untrustworthy. It depicted the Labor leader as prepared to return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, when the West Bank and Gaza were in Jordanian and Egyptian hands, respectively, and ready to cut a deal with the hated PLO. At the same time, Likud kept some of its leading hawks, like former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, mostly under wraps so as not to frighten "soft" Labor voters who want a settlement, but who might be lured to switch their vote out of fear that Peres will pay too high a price for peace.
Neither party held out hope for a future in which Jew and Arab might live in mutual respect, much less harmony.
Several oddities spiced the campaign. For the first time, Arab leaders regarded as enemies of Israel threw in endorsements; Jordan's King Hussein directly backed Peres and the PLO's Yasser Arafat weighed in with the suggestion that Israeli Arabs vote for peace, which was taken as code for Peres. The clandestine leaders of the Arab uprising, which some observers believe has hardened Israeli opinion against concessions to Palestinians, called on Israelis to "vote for peace and against the occupation."
Conscious that Israeli Arab voters could be a particularly important factor this time because of their potential blocking power, the Likud appeared to try harder than normal to woo them. It tried so hard, in fact, that it inadvertently adopted as a jingle a tune known to delighted Arab listeners as a PLO fight song--the equivalent of Ronald Reagan's whistling the Internationale, the revolutionary socialist hymn.
Kahane Banned From Election
Firebrand Rabbi Meir Kahane was banned from the vote for the racial overtones of his anti-Arab campaign. But other parties that have sugar-coated his message by using terms like "transfer" instead of expulsion as the solution to the Arab conflict remained in the race and are expected to win seats.
Parties on the outer fringe of Israeli politics, meanwhile, contributed light moments if little actual light to the campaign. One party's candidates broadcast ads of themselves in bathing suits, another promised to represent Israeli voters by saying nothing in the Knesset and a third offered endorsements of their leader only from his close friends and relatives.
Whether all the campaigning actually changed anyone's mind was a matter of conjecture Sunday.
Daniel Elazar, director of the Jerusalem Institute for Public Affairs, said that whether it did or not, the stumping "has had an impact. I think it has at least helped clarify in people's minds where they stand on the issues."