Israeli experts expect dirtiest election campaign ever

Yariv Ben-Eliezer, dean of the School of Communications at Tel Aviv University and a top media consultant, predicts that the main contenders will viciously attack each other's careers and private lives and that the debate could descend into a battle of personal slurs. "It is going to be very personal and very bloody. It is going to be like a fist fight," he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's use of U.S. media specialist Arthur Finkelstein in the last election helped transform him into what Ben-Eliezer considers to be the ultimate "media man."

Now Labor leader Ehud Barak has enlisted the services of James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, who helped mastermind Bill Clinton's rise to the top.

"The campaigns will be much grislier and more personal because of the experts brought from Europe and America," said Menachem Sheizaf, who runs his own media consultancy firm.

Ben-Eliezer, who in the past has advised the Tsomet Party and the Histadrut national labor federation on their media campaigns, says that Netanyahu's opponents will probably accuse him of being a "media gimmick," a liar, of having a weak personality and no plan except the plan to survive.

Barak's enemies will say that he is vague about his policies and will undoubtedly dig up the old nickname "Ehud Barach" (Ehud ran away), which refers to Barak's suspected involvement in a fatal 1992 army training accident, of which he was cleared. Barak was one of three officers present when a live missile was fired accidentally in the Negev, killing five Israeli soldiers and wounding six others.

Netanyahu's camp will be especially eager to attack Amnon Lipkin Shahak, should he decide to run for prime minister, according to Ben-Eliezer. He also predicts that the media will make a meal of any dirt that Shahak's opponents can dig up about his private life.

"Shahak was immune [to media criticism] while chief of staff because the army is a sacred cow, but there is no immunity in politics," he said.

The obsession with the private lives of politicians is relatively new in Israeli politics. As Sheizaf points out, the country has not traditionally taken much interest in the personal affairs of its leaders.

"It is only since Bibi became prime minister, that [the head of state's] personal life is always involved," said Sheizaf, noting that Netanyahu often takes his wife and children with him to public occasions in the American style, which bears the fingerprints of his U.S. advisers.

Neither Ben-Eliezer nor Sheizaf is yet certain what their roles will be in the upcoming election period but both are steeling themselves for an out-and-out battle.