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Monday, May 03, 1999

'Riffraff' slur hurts Labor leader in Israeli election campaign
Likud raps actress' remark against Sephardic voters

Joel Greenberg / The New York Times, with files from Agence France-Presse

haKneseth beTSN'T

JERUSALEM - Entering its home stretch, Israel's volatile election campaign generated fresh controversy yesterday with the broadcast of remarks that had the ring of an ethnic slur. An actress who supports Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor Party, called working-class Sephardic Jewish backers of Benjamin Netanyhau, the prime minister, "riffraff," setting off a storm of protest and damaging Mr. Barak's efforts to capture Sephardic votes.

The statements by the actress, Tiki Dayan, forced Mr. Barak into urgent damage control. It also breathed new life into Mr. Netanyahu's campaign at a time when Mr. Barak had been appearing to open up a lead in public opinion polls, a little more than two weeks before the May 17 elections.

The incident exposed ethnic tensions simmering just below the surface of the campaign, in which Mr. Barak has been reaching out to disadvantaged Sephardic voters by focusing on issues such as unemployment and education.

Ms. Dayan spoke on Friday at a gathering of performing artists who support Mr. Barak, and her remarks were broadcast yesterday morning on Israel Radio. They touched a raw nerve, exposing social fault lines that have traditionally divided Labor supporters from backers of the Likud, many of them working-class Sephardic Jews living in low-income neighbourhoods and towns.

"We're talking about a different people, don't you understand," Ms. Dayan told the gathering, which Mr. Barak attended. "We're talking about people who've been made into the most important people here, to the people in the market, to the riffraff, to those who say, 'Even if he were Arafat I would vote for Bibi [Mr. Netanyahu's nickname].' "

Ms. Dayan added: "That's how they think and that's how they talk. Speak to them in a way they'll understand -- clear, open, straight, humble."

Mr. Barak, a former army chief of staff, described the decision to broadcast the remarks as a "cluster bomb" aimed at his campaign. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a prominent Sephardic member of Labor, called the comments "semiracist" and "verbal pornography."

Moving quickly to make up for his failure to denounce the statements when they were made, Mr. Barak condemned them repeatedly in radio interviews yesterday and demanded that Ms. Dayan apologize.

Ms. Dayan, noting that she was herself Sephardic and had portrayed Sephardic characters, said she was sorry for using the term "riffraff," and she warned against attempts by the Likud to exploit her statements to fan ethnic hatred.

But Mr. Netanyahu asserted that Ms. Dayan's remarks had simply shown that Labor remains the same remote, elitist party that has alienated Sephardic voters for years.

"It's the same arrogant left, the same small group in the suburbs of north Tel Aviv who think they can run the country," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Mr. Netanyahu claimed Ms. Dayan had belittled the Sephardic community -- Jews who originate from Spain and North Africa -- who traditionally vote Likud and mistrust Labor leaders because of their failure to help the new immigrants during the 1950s, when they were in power.

He drew a parallel between Ms. Dayan's remarks and an ethnic slur used at a Labor party rally in 1981 by an Israeli entertainer, Dudu Topaz, who called Likud supporters "chakhchakhim," a pejorative reference to Moroccan-born Jews. Backlash against that epithet is said to have helped Menachem Begin, then-prime minister, win re-election.

In the latest surveys released on Friday, Mr. Barak's lead rose to eight points over Mr. Netanyahu, his biggest advance of the campaign.

Mr. Netanyahu reacted by summoning his American campaign advisor, to Israel, and was expected to launch an aggressive attack on Mr. Barak during the final two weeks of the race.

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