TV Ads -- and Scandal -- Heat Up Israeli Campaign

Times Staff Writer

Wailing ambulances. Blood streaks on the streets from a suicide bombing. An Israeli tank blowing up a Palestinian building.

These images play to Israeli fears and are the heart of a campaign ad that ends with a defiant Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising voters that Palestinians "cannot break our spirits."

Tuesday was the first night that campaign ads were broadcast by more than 10 political parties competing for seats in Israel's national elections, to be held Jan. 28.

Despite the focus on security, the biggest issue for Sharon's Likud Party, however, is spiraling scandals that Tuesday reached the prime minister himself.

According to Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, Sharon lied to government regulators about the provenance of a loan for more than $1 million. He used the money to satisfy a regulatory ruling requiring him to repay improper contributions he received during his 1999 primary campaign.

"This election campaign is ... a fight between the television ads and the news," said Hemi Shalev, a political analyst for Maariv, one of the country's largest daily newspapers.

"Many events, especially corruption, are being reported extensively by the media, so one of the objects of the television ads on the part of the Likud is to get the agenda back to issues it feels comfortable with," Shalev wrote.

Hanan Kristal, a commentator for Voice of Israel radio, had much the same impression.

"If the headlines in the newspaper day after day are about Likud's corruption, Likud is in trouble," he said. "If we talk about security, it's better for Likud."

In Israel -- where public attention can shift in a matter of seconds if, for instance, there is a suicide bombing or other attack -- it is impossible to say whether the corruption charges will have an impact. But with just three weeks until the elections, the charges appear likely to remain a major theme and already appear to be eroding support for Likud.

On the day of the ads' release, Eyal Arad, Sharon's chief strategist, was defending his boss rather than touting him.

"The loan was completely legal," Arad told a news conference. Cyril Kern, the South African from whom Sharon's son borrowed the money to secure the bank loan for his father, was an old family friend, Arad said.

They "have known each other for 50 years. Sharon's sons have known him since the day they were born. It was but natural that when Gilad [one of Sharon's sons] felt a certain cash flow problem, he turned to him and received from him a proper loan at low interest. The loan was perfectly legal," Arad insisted.

However, a poll Monday by the independent firm Market Watch found that Likud's support level, which a month ago would have translated into 40 seats in the Knesset, or parliament, had dropped to the equivalent of 33 seats. Other polls have found drops of between six and 10 seats. The Knesset has 120 seats.

The beneficiary is the Shinui Party (the name means "change"), which boasts of its clean hands and its adamant opposition to the influence of religious parties in the government. Shinui won six seats in the last election, but this time, according to the Market Watch poll, it would win 14 seats.

Shinui was the only significant party to unveil a commercial aimed directly at the corruption issue on the first night of ads. In it, party leader Tommy Lapid, a blunt, middle-aged man, sits in front of a roulette table, a not-so-subtle reference to the influence of casino operators on Likud. He recites a list of recent scandals that touched either Likud or the Labor Party. Then he says: "The polls have shown Shinui to be the most honest party. We didn't buy votes. We didn't buy seats. And we refuse to sit in government with corrupt politicians."

Labor chose to use the evening to introduce its relatively unknown leader, Amram Mitzna, in a glitzy montage of clips reminiscent of the highly successful video of candidate Bill Clinton's life shown during the 1992 Democratic convention.

In Labor's ads, gory images are avoided. Instead, viewers follow Mitzna's career. They see black-and-white stills of Mitzna the scrubbed student; color clips of him in army fatigues; takes of him in his most recent job, as mayor of Haifa, one of Israel's few mixed Jewish-Arab cities; and finally a picture of him cradling his first grandchild in his arms. Interspersed are shots of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the man most associated with Israeli peace efforts, praising Mitzna's military record.

The message is clear: Mitzna may have a reputation as a dove, but he has strong military credentials and knows what it means to fight for Israel.

Both Labor's and Likud's ads aim to help them retain their base constituencies without alienating voters in the middle, said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science and communications at Hebrew University.

In keeping with that goal, the focus of Mitzna's initial ads was on blasting Sharon for failing to give Israelis the security they crave and on promising a wall to separate the Palestinian territories from Israel. No mention was made of his more controversial stands, which include negotiating with the Palestinians and offering to dismantle Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas.

"That would make him lose the middle," Wolfsfeld said.

By contrast, Sharon's chief advisor is one of the kings of negative campaign ads in the U.S., Arthur Finkelstein -- a onetime advisor to former Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The prime minister's ads attack Mitzna as a craven peacenik who will sacrifice Israel's sovereignty.

In one of Likud's ads, Sharon condemns every chapter of the last decade's peace efforts, from the 1993 Oslo accords to the Camp David talks in 2000, and predicts that if Mitzna is elected, he will bring more of the same, ceding ground to the Palestinians. Sharon ends with one of his campaign slogans: "Mitzna, another one of Labor's mistakes."

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