Carville Stirs Israel's Melting Pot

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Not that Barak doesn't have his own ethnic problem. Just as he appeared to be making gains on the Russian front, an ethnic slur uttered by a Labor supporter threatens to reverse some of the gains Barak has made in Netanyahu's traditional Sephardic base (Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries, whose mistreatment at the hands of successive Labor governments has translated into bitter resentment against the party of the mostly European Ashkenazi elite). Barak launched his campaign by making an unprecedented apology to the Sephardim for Labor's past treatment of them, and mounting unemployment had begun to swing sections of that community behind Labor. But when an actress, who happens to be Sephardic-born, spoke on a Barak platform at the weekend and used the term "riffraff" to refer to Netanyahu's supporters, the prime minister believed he'd found his Willy Horton. "Proud to be riffraff" is now a key campaign slogan of Netanyahu's -- who happens to be Ashkenazi -- as his campaign tries to tarnish Barak's party as closet racists.

Not even armed demonstrations in the West Bank town of Hebron Tuesday, or more casualties in Israel's southern Lebanon occupation zone, have distracted Israeli politicians from their fratricidal political infighting. And there could be worse to come: Barak currently has the edge over Netanyahu in the polls, but there's no sign yet that he'll achieve the critical mass to emerge from the still-crowded field and win it in the first round. That would leave Netanyahu and Barak to duke it out in a runoff vote on June 1 -- and lead to a further two weeks of bruising battles in Israel's domestic culture wars.

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