Electionscape: Bird flu a windfall [pg. 3]

Former agriculture minister Yisrael Katz tried to turn the avian flu into a political issue yesterday by blaming the government for mismanaging its response to the outbreak, but even he knows that this is one issue that he won't be able to turn into political capital. The charges can easily boomerang against him with questions about why hadn't he prepared the system for the arrival of the virus during his watch. While the bird flu is an ill wind for the birds destined for extermination and the poultry business which may lose hundreds of millions of shekels, it's a windfall for Kadima. A week before the elections and the main issue in the news has nothing to do with the political agenda and can't really be pinned on the government. Anything that puts the campaign to sleep and freezes the situation in the polls is perfect for the front-runner. The media have been complaining for weeks that this was the most boring election campaign in memory - though there have been no shortage of major surprises including Peretz, Kadima, Sharon's stroke and Shinui's disintegration - and they're hungry for anything different. The bird "plague" is a perfect diversion, as was the almost-shootout between two crime families in Tel-Aviv on Sunday. Even the potentially damaging "health basket" crisis has been turned, thanks to the attorney-general, into a legal issue. Kadima's strategists hope that events will continue to keep the campaign in sleep mode until next Tuesday, that no one will take much notice of Yoav Yitzhak's almost daily revelations against Ehud Olmert of alleged corruption, the last-minute mud slinging between the parties won't get off the ground, and everyone treats Kadima's victory as fait accompli. If this works out, Kadima's rivals will have another claim to add to the charge sheet they're preparing against the press. Senior Laborites have been blaming the newspapers and TV for months for ignoring their campaign and its radical social platform, save for ridiculing their leader Amir Peretz and effectively finishing him off as a prospective prime minister. But the complaints, though largely justified, have been mainly off-the-record, out of fear of further alienating the media and seeming pathetic to the voters. Likud's charges are much more serious. It blames the press for joining forces with Kadima in waging an all-out personal crusade against Binyamin Netanyahu. Over the last couple of days, they've come out into the open and all the party's spokespeople joined the attack, accusing the entire media of "incitement" and serious bias. This wasn't an easy decision. Netanyahu knows that taking on the press, while popular in right-wing circles, can easily prove to be a double-edged sword. He did the same thing in his disastrous 1999 campaign and the famous "they're scared" speech still haunts him to this day and appears again and again in Kadima's broadcasts as proof of "Bibi panic." In order not to repeat the mistake, Netanyahu isn't making the claims himself this time, at least not in public; and Likud is trying to take the high road with an official complaint to the elections commission against Channel 2 for showing a profile on Netanyahu that "committed character assassination." But the party is still taking a major risk. The hope is that portraying Netanyahu as a media-martyr will attract sympathy and votes, and that it might even rein the press in a bit. On the other hand, it might cause an even more violent backlash and give the impression that Likud is already acting like a party of sore losers. Either way, goes the reckoning in the party, there's little to lose.