Ehud Barak joins in battle for Arab votes in Israel

JERUSALEM — Ehud Barak's weekend visit to Arab communities in northern Israel has made two facts clear early in the election campaign: The Labor Party leader absolutely needs the Arab vote to win the premiership, and he has little hope of securing support among fervently religious Jews.

But Barak's Christmas tour of Arab Christian communities last Saturday may already have been too late.

There are strong voices within the Israeli Arab community calling for an Arab candidate for prime minister.

"Surely, we cannot win," said Hadash Knesset member Azmi Beshara, "but we should make it quite obvious to the Zionist parties that we are not their captives. If they want our support, they will need to prove that they are worth it."

The scenario is simple: Any Arab candidate would probably get fewer votes than the leaders of the Likud and Labor parties and any other Jewish candidates in the race.

However, assuming that no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff election, the Arab candidate would have a sufficient number of votes to try to bargain with the leading candidates and trade his or her support for more social spending for Israeli Arabs.

The list is long: larger municipal and educational budgets, more jobs, more housing, support for the indigent Bedouin population in the Negev — all of that before a word is uttered regarding the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Barak would like to avoid that scenario by gaining the support of the 18 percent of the Israeli electorate who are Arab in the first round of elections. In the 1996 elections, 95 percent of Arab voters cast their ballots for Shimon Peres, but the Labor premier still earned 14,000 votes fewer than Netanyahu overall.

Barak knows that other candidates, including Netanyahu, will also be campaigning for the Arab vote. But the former Israel Defense Force chief of staff is determined to prove to the Arabs that he is their best choice.

Apart from the race for premier, the Labor Party itself may have cause for concern as Israeli Arab leaders ponder creating a single list of candidates for the Knesset.

Knesset Members like Beshara and Abdel Wahab Darawshe, of the Arab Democratic Party, have called for a unified Arab list that potentially could become the third largest party in the Knesset.

Currently, there are 10 Arabs serving in the Knesset with four parties. In addition to the Arab Democratic Party, there are two Zionist parties — Labor and Meretz — and a joint Jewish-Arab list, Hadash.

Previous efforts to establish a single Arab party never took hold because the Arabs were too divided among themselves to form a unified party.

While this inability was mainly based on personality differences, it was also ideological. Hadash, for example, has insisted on preserving its multiethnic nature. "How can we join forces with Muslim fundamentalists?" asked Jewish Knesset member Tamar Gozansky of Hadash.

Beshara believes he has the answer: a joint election list, in which each party preserves its own character.

The Arab electoral scene becomes even more complicated if one takes into account the baits offered by the ruling Likud Party and the fervently religious Shas Party, which runs the powerful Interior Ministry, the government office overseeing the allocation of budgets to local communities.

Both Likud and Shas have demonstrated in the past that they can muster enough Arab support to win one or two Knesset seats.

Thus, it is likely that the divisions of the past will recur.

"The danger exists," admitted Beshara, "but there are greater prospects this time that we shall demonstrate unity."