Election barbs begin flying just as Israelis go to polls

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JERUSALEM — On the eve of Israel's national elections, Labor Party officials were simmering over campaign banners that read, "Netanyahu is Good for the Jews."

The banners appeared after a group of ultra-religious rabbis called this week on supporters to back the Likud leader in Wednesday's elections for prime minister.

The charges came in the intense last hours leading up to Wednesday's elections, with Labor and Likud trading allegations of deal-making.

Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair said he would examine whether the banners, distributed by the Chabad Chassidic movement, violated Israel's laws against racism.

Ben-Yair also said there would be an examination into the transfer of government funds for Chabad.

Cabinet ministers charged Tuesday that Chabad describes itself as an educational movement but has operated a political group during the election campaign.

Likud officials disassociated the party from the banners.

Adding to the climate of recriminations was a second banner that read, "Peres is Good for the Arabs."

Meanwhile, Labor Party officials accused the Likud of having made a secret deal with the ultra-religious Agudat Yisrael Party in exchange for its support.

Labor officials alleged that in return for their rabbinical endorsement, Agudat Yisrael would be rewarded if a Likud-religious party coalition were formed after the elections.

The Labor Party said that under the deal, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Porush of Agudat Yisrael would replace the Likud's Ehud Olmert as Jerusalem's mayor.

The party would also be given control of the Housing Ministry and the key Knesset Finance Committee.

Both the Likud and Agudat Yisrael denied there was any pact.

Earlier this week, it was reported that Prime Minister Shimon Peres had come up with his own package of concessions for Agudat Yisrael in return for its support.

In another election-related incident, the grave of the late Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem was desecrated Tuesday with political slogans.

Vandals used red paint to scrawl at the gravesite, "Peres Will Win," "Bibi, Go Home" and "Rabin Was Murdered. Blood Will be Paid with Blood."

Police were investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, security was stepped up this week around Peres and Internal Security Minister Moshe Shahal after threats were issued against them.

Security officials said those threatening Shahal included followers of self-styled Yemenite leader Uzi Meshulam, who was imprisoned in 1994 after he and his armed followers were seized after a shootout with police.

The violent confrontation took place amid repeated calls from Meshulam and his followers for a government inquiry into the alleged disappearance of Yemenite children during the 1950s.

The heightened security measures were expected to be in effect throughout the week.

In addition to the protective measures for Peres and Shahal, some 20,000 Israeli police and soldiers were deployed throughout the country this week amid warnings of possible terrorist attacks.

Along with the security measures, police were taking steps to prevent election fraud.

Shahal and Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz said police had been mobilized to prevent the buying and selling of identity cards, which Israeli citizens must present in order to vote.

Interior Minister Haim Ramon said the problem was particularly acute in ultra-religious areas in Jerusalem and had to be dealt with urgently.

Ramon made the comment at the Cabinet meeting Tuesday, the current government's last such meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the Cabinet approved the establishment of a center to commemorate the late Yitzhak Rabin.