NeWs Analysis: Religious, rab voters wooem in election campaign

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JERUSALEM — In the three months leading up to Israel's national elections, the Hebrew political lexicon will adopt some important new words.

More and more politicians — and not necessarily those who put on tefillin every morning — will make use of terms such as "be'ezrat haShem" (with God's help) and "bli neder" (without making a formal vow) and sprinkle their speeches with biblical references as they make appeals for votes.

Among these politicians will be Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be courting Israel's religious voters as they face off in the country's first direct vote for the premiership.

The two candidates are investing a lot of effort — and money — in trying to woo the religious vote, which has the potential to elect some 16 to 18 Knesset members.

They are also launching a similar effort to attract the Israeli Arab vote, which can fill 12 Knesset seats.

After meeting with Peres Monday night, Netanyahu told reporters that May 28 seemed to be a date Labor and Likud could agree on for holding early elections. The Knesset was expected to pass by the end of this week legislation dissolving itself and setting the election date.

The elections will be different from all previous Israeli elections in that there will be two separate ballots — one for the premiership, the other for the Knesset.

It is commonly accepted that with the direct election of the prime minister, the elected candidate will find it much easier to form a coalition than in the past, when success often depended on the support of individual Knesset members.

Thus, the campaign will focus more than ever on the personalities of the two candidates for the premiership.

A Gallup Poll released Friday of last week gave Peres 52 percent of the vote for prime minister, compared to 30 percent for Netanyahu.

Whether they are appealing for the religious vote or Israeli Arabs, Peres and Netanyahu will have to adjust their vocabulary for the constituencies whose support they seek.

In this vein, Netanyahu has reportedly refrained during the past year from entering any non-kosher restaurant, something believed to be a change in his gastronomical habits.

Peres, a veteran suitor of the religious community, is certain to try and revive old relationships.

Given that Arab voters historically have favored Labor over Likud, Peres is expected to be more successful than Netanyahu in this community.

Public opinion polls have shown that Israel's Arabs will overwhelmingly support Peres.

Moreover, some 37 percent of the Arab vote is expected to go to Labor's Knesset candidates, despite the existence of several Arab-based parties.

Courting the charedi (ultra-religious) vote will present Peres with a more formidable challenge.

The Labor Party's governing coalition with the secularist Meretz Party and its failure to prevent major court decisions that chipped away at Orthodoxy's virtual monopoly on Israel's religious life are issues that do not sit well with the fervently religious community.

Not that Netanyahu's path to the charedi community runs through a rose garden.

Certainly, his commitment to a Greater Israel is more appealing to most religious voters than Peres' willingness to cede land for his vision of a new Middle East.

But Netanyahu also has hurdles to overcome, including his secular image, his public confession three years ago that he had an extramarital affair and his agreement last week to share party lists with the right-wing Tsomet Party, whose platform calls for recruiting yeshiva students into the army.

The importance of the religious vote has prompted Peres and Netanyahu to hire experts to help them gain that support.

Likud has hired Mordechai Halperin, a former spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudat Yisrael who is now a candidate in the Galilee in the Likud primaries.

Halperin now spends most of his time arranging meetings between Netanyahu and ultra-religious rabbis. Meanwhile, the Likud has prepared its first campaign ad aimed at religious voters.

The ad contains a large picture of Peres and Labor Knesset member Yael Dayan, who in the past infuriated the charedi community with insinuations that the biblical friends David and Jonathan were homosexuals.

Under the picture is the slogan: "The Haredim Don't Interest Them!"

Meanwhile, Labor has engaged David Silberschlag, 38, a Chassid who is one of the leading advertising experts in the religious community.

Three years ago, Silberschlag ran Likud candidate Ehud Olmert's campaign among the charedim, which contributed to Olmert's victory over Teddy Kollek for mayor of Jerusalem.

In a recent newspaper interview, Silberschlag indicated what would be some of the main pillars of Labor's election campaign among the charedi community: more housing; no provocative archaeological excavations, which lead charedim to charge that ancient Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated; and an emphasis on the differences between Labor and the more left-wing Meretz regarding the religious status quo in Israel.

"Our polls have shown that many charedim have moderate leftist views. They can be supplemented by many others, with the proper information campaign," Silberschlag said.

One difficulty in running a campaign within the charedi community is the major division that splits the religious vote. Both parties will need to map carefully the competing factions in order to get out the vote.

The Arab electorate also is divided. Although they can potentially elect 12 Knesset members, only seven Arabs and one Druse serve in the present Knesset.

Attempts to create a unitary list have repeatedly failed and there are still three major Arab blocs running for the Knesset: Hadash, a Communist grouping of Jews and Arabs that currently holds three Knesset seats, two of them Arab; the Arab Democratic Party, with two seats; and a newly formed bloc, headed by Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a gynecologist who serves as special adviser to Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat.