By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Forget the deadlocked Palestinian peace process or the Iranian nuclear program. The latest political fracas in Israel is over whether the prime minister's wife kept the deposit when she recycled bottles from state functions.
Even by the notoriously feisty standards of Israeli politics, the campaign for parliament on March 17, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fourth term, has been particularly bruising.
With opinion polls predicting a close race between Netanyahu's Likud party and a center opposition alliance, the focus has been on personalities and allegations of wrongdoing rather than substance.
"This is a mudslinging war," declared Hanan Crystal, a well-regarded political analyst on Israel Radio.
"Where all the negativity will lead, nobody knows."
An early target has been Netanyahu's wife, Sara, a psychologist and former flight attendant who seldom speaks in public but has often been the butt of criticism in the press for her perceived imperiousness.
Israeli newspapers are full of accusations about Sara failing to return to national coffers the refunds gained from recycling bottles used at the prime minister's official Jerusalem residence, the argument being that taxpayers paid for the beverages so the state should get the refund.
The Netanyahus' lawyers have said the money was used as petty cash by household staff, and that the family did pay funds back. But that has not helped quell a storm, compounded by old allegations about the state having paid for the Netanyahus' garden furniture at their private home.
The prime minister has denied the allegations and called on the media to focus on him rather than his wife, while also taking to Facebook to accuse his political rivals of "orchestrating a harmonious media onslaught of recycled, humiliating and false" charges against him.
US OR HIM
With the election so tight - the latest polls suggest the center alliance will win 24 or 25 seats in the 120-member Knesset, one or two ahead of Likud - personality politics is seen as a key driver of swing votes. The polarizing figure of Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader since state founder David Ben-Gurion, makes him fair game.
The center slogan is: "It's us or him." Netanyahu's slogan is: "It's us or them."
Generally, security is the dominant issue in Israeli elections, which have always resulted in coalition governments. But since Netanyahu is perceived as strong on that front, the opposition has looked elsewhere for leverage.
"There has been an extreme process where people care more about personalities and less about parties and ideologies than they did before," said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "That's how we wind up with all these personal attacks."
While the Netanyahus have been on the receiving end of most of the mudslinging so far, the center is not unsullied.
Likud has accused the opposition of a rules breach by receiving funds from the United States to finance advertisements urging Israelis to vote for "Anyone but Netanyahu".
Since Israeli law allows political parties to accept foreign contributions, police and other legal authorities have not opened an investigation.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Luke Baker and Peter Graff)