Israel's Own 'New Hampshire'

Article excerpt

ISRAEL'S political scene is ablaze. On Feb. 19, Labor's Siamese twins, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, will face off in a primary election that may conclude their 18-year rivalry. The next day, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir will be challenged in Likud's nominating convention by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon and by Foreign Minister David Levy. Of all these candidacies, only Mr. Rabin's holds promise for Israel's future.

Neither Mr. Sharon nor Mr. Levy will depose Mr. Shamir. But the 76-year-old premier is expected to retire before his 80th birthday. The scramble in Likud's convention will kick off the struggle for Shamir's succession.

The Labor Party's American-style primary, unprecedented in Israel, means that the wide public, rather than a few thousand party hacks, will choose directly a candidate for prime minister. This gives Rabin an edge.

After Labor's defeat in 1977, Mr. Peres rebuilt the demoralized party. But while he consolidated his position as party leader, and despite an impressive stint as prime minister, Peres failed to reverse Labor's unpopularity among working-class Israelis of Middle-Eastern background.

Labor supporters want an electable candidate, and Peres has failed four consecutive times to defeat Likud. Many Israelis see Peres as a schemer who, as defense minister, undermined then-Prime Minister Rabin and later, as foreign minister, launched his own foreign policy above Prime Minister Shamir's head.

Peres finally lost political altitude when he tried two years ago to entice marginal parliamentarians to defect from right to left in return for powerful governmental appointments, so that he could become prime minister.

Israelis of all walks respect Rabin, who at age 25 commanded 1,000 teenagers in some of the fiercest battles of Israel's independence war, and 19 years later led the Israeli Army to victory in the Six Day War. Rabin transformed smoothly into a statesman when, as ambassador to Washington, he lay the foundations for Israel's most crucial alliance.

The shift to politics was more painful, however. The war hero appeared indecisive and uninspiring, a shy man with very few close friends, a colorless public speaker with a deep disdain for ceremony and public relations. In 1976, after two years as premier, he was forced to resign. …