Israel's opposition Likud Party kicked off its underdog election campaign Sunday with a surprise move, accusing Prime Minister Shimon Peres of setting out to divide Jerusalem during final peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-of-center Likud, called the upcoming national election "a referendum on Jerusalem." He charged that the government is holding secret talks in Europe on the status of Jerusalem, just as it secretly negotiated the peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo in 1993.
With highway billboards and newspaper ads declaring that "Peres will divide Jerusalem"--claimed by both Jews and Palestinians--it has become clear that Likud has deemed the emotionally charged issue its best shot in the face of opinion polls that give Peres a 15- to 19-point lead over Netanyahu in the prime minister's race, to be held in May or June.
"Today we are launching a campaign to prevent the division of Jerusalem," Netanyahu said. "The public must choose between a united Jerusalem under a Likud government and a divided Jerusalem under Labor."
Peres immediately denied any secret talks on the fate of Jerusalem or any intention of dividing the sacred city again. Leaders of his Labor Party counterpunched, accusing Likud of leading Palestinians to believe that there is a split within Israel over Jerusalem and, therefore, a possibility of negotiating the city's division.
Israel captured the eastern half of the city from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War. The Palestinians want the predominantly Arab half of the city as the capital of an independent Palestinian state and will be starting from that position in final negotiations that are to begin in May.
The surprise Likud strategy is seen as an attempt to sidestep the fundamental issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord--over which Peres' predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish law student.
Netanyahu has long opposed the 1993 agreement between Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whom he still considers a terrorist. Nearly half the country agreed with him until Rabin's slaying. But recent opinion polls in favor of the peace process and the Labor Party forced Netanyahu to accept that the agreement was a fait accompli and left him searching for a campaign issue.
The new issue is Jerusalem, which Israelis call their "eternal and undivided capital." The city is holy to Muslims and Christians as well. But Jews have considered Jerusalem theirs since it was conquered by King David nearly 3,000 years ago, and they have fought repeatedly for control of it. When the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule, Jews were not allowed to visit their holiest site--the Western Wall.
By focusing on Jerusalem, Likud aims to grab Israelis with a gut issue that cuts across ideological lines and, the party hopes, will distract the country from the emotional issue of Rabin's assassination.
Peres' Cabinet secretary, Shmuel Hollander, called the Likud charges "groundless" and said: "The government is completely united around the principle of the non-division of Jerusalem. The claims made by Likud on this issue are tantamount to incitement."
Health Minister Ephraim Sneh said the Likud slogan "recalls the incitement against Rabin. This may end in yet another assassination."
Because Likud had branded Rabin a "traitor" and "murderer" over the peace accord, Rabin's widow, Leah, and Labor leaders accused Likud of creating a climate of violence that led to his killing Nov. 4.
Labor is sure to bring out the "incitement" charge frequently during the campaign in hopes of silencing Likud or at least blunting its criticism of the government.
On Sunday, Peres' daughter, Zvia Walden, a university lecturer, said she had received death threats against her father and herself.
"There are threats against the prime minister," Walden told Israel Radio in a rare interview by a member of Peres' family. "People who oppose him are losing their minds. I think they feel the moment of truth is coming and the solution he strived for over many years is finally becoming a reality."