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Israeli Election Campaign Begins

Israel's election campaign began on Tuesday with different parties unveiling their campaign ads, and the candidates stepping up attacks against each other. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from our Jerusalem bureau three weeks before Israeli voters go to the polls on March 28.

Israelis pay close attention to political advertisements, and Israeli election campaigns only begin when the parties unveil their campaign ads as they have now done.

Those two jingles for the Kadima Party and the Labor Party will be played over and over between now and March 28 when voters go to the polls to select a new government.

Less than three months ago, Israel's political future seemed pre-determined. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, leading his newly formed centrist Kadima Party was virtually guaranteed of an overwhelming victory; a victory he said he would use to set Israel's final border with the Palestinians.

As the architect of last year's unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip Mr. Sharon had emerged as a historic figure in Israel, trusted across the political spectrum. Using his accumulated political capital, Mr. Sharon left the Likud Party, a party he helped to form, to establish Kadima - taking some of Israel's leading politicians from both the right-wing Likud party and the left-wing Labor party to form a centrist political bloc, a move that proved overwhelmingly popular with Israeli voters.

However, everything changed in early January, when Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and cerebral hemorrhage that left him comatose in Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, where he remains to this day. Israel's politicians rallied around Mr. Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem and Mr. Olmert was quickly named acting prime minister and given the task of leading Kadima to an election win.

Polls in January showed Mr. Olmert coasting to an easy victory and winning the mandate he said he wanted to carry out Ariel Sharon's goal of setting Israel's final border with the Palestinians. However, recent polls show support for Kadima slipping, with some potential voters defecting to the Likud Party, even though Kadima still holds a commanding lead over Likud, its nearest rival.

Corruption allegations surrounding Ariel Sharon's son who, acting as his father's political enforcer, dispensed jobs and favors across the political spectrum, as well as questions about the propriety of Mr. Olmert's multi-million dollar sale of his house to a foreign investor, have dented Ehud Olmert and Kadima's fortunes. Akiva Aldar, a leading columnist for the daily Ha'aretz newspaper says Mr. Olmert has discovered his political honeymoon is over.

"Ehud Olmert does not have the charm, the charisma and the experience of his predecessor, and he has to answer questions that Sharon had the privilege of avoiding," he said. "Ehud Olmert doesn't get any discounts from the Israeli public or the media and, of course, from the other parties. Sharon was a very unique species and that is the reason we saw Kadima reaching more than 40 seats or more than one third of the electorate. Now we are going back to normal life and it seems that Ehud Olmert doesn't have all the answers."

Israeli politics was also turned upside down on January 25, when the Islamic militant group Hamas won on overwhelming victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections. It was a victory that few in Israel predicted and a development that Israel's government, preoccupied by Mr. Sharon's illness and upcoming elections seemed unprepared for. To many in Israel, Mr. Olmert's government has seemed on the defensive since the Hamas win, something this ad by the Likud Party is seeking to reinforce.

The ad which is meant to sound like a Hamas broadcast, thanks Mr. Olmert for allowing the Palestinian elections to proceed, and for allowing the initial transfer of millions of dollars of customs and tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, something Israel says it will now no longer do since Hamas has been named to form a new government.

Akiva Aldar of Ha'aretz says even though many Israelis support the idea of pulling back from much of the Palestinian territories, ads like the one created by the Likud Party exploit fears that Israelis have about how Palestinian militants seemed to have capitalized on last year's Gaza disengagement. Aldar says the Hamas victory solidified those fears and had an immediate impact on Israel's upcoming election.

"Actually the emergence of Hamas has also forced a new agenda on the campaign because now we are back to issues of security and whether we should go back to the process or not," he added. "It seems that Hamas is dictating to us the agenda; the old bad agenda, that looks to many people as existential [based on existence] while social and economic issues look like something you can put on the back burner. "

That has hurt Israel's Labor Party, led by a firebrand Labor leader Amir Peretz, as well as some of Israel's smaller parties who usually join governing coalitions. The Labor Party's traditional message of helping the poor and opposing free market economic policies does not seem to have much resonance with Israeli voters concerned with security issues and a Hamas government that refuses to disarm or recognize the Jewish state.