Behind Barak's Election Gamble

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Ehud Barak addresses the Knesset, where he announced early elections

In the end, the only way forward for Ehud Barak was to go back — to the electorate, in search of a renewed peace mandate. Facing certain defeat in his efforts to stop Israel's parliament from adopting a motion to force new elections, the Israeli prime minister shocked his opponents Tuesday by simply calling a new election himself after serving only 18 months of his four-year term. Having failed to coax hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon into a national unity government, Barak found his minority government isolated in the legislature. By calling new elections, he's opted for a referendum on how Israel should respond to the political crisis brought on by the collapse of the peace process. But his chances of reelection may depend on his ability to calm the situation in the Palestinian territories and make new progress towards peace between now and election day.

Sharon vs. Netanyahu

The first, and perhaps most important, contest of the new election campaign will be the battle for the Likud party's nomination. Party leader Ariel Sharon believes he's the man for the job, and has been agitating in recent weeks for an even more aggressive Israeli response to the Palestinian uprising, including expanded use of selective assassinations and cutting off water and electricity supplies to Palestinian territories. But Sharon also has to contend with a high negative rating among many Israelis, made worse by his provocative visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount two months ago, which set off the current wave of violence. Waiting in the wings is his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is more than ready to make a political comeback after being cleared of corruption allegations. The more charismatic Netanyahu is considered a far greater threat to Barak than Sharon, despite high negative ratings of his own. And that's likely to sway Likud into nominating the man Barak beat in 1999 to take back the government for the party of the right. Indeed, the prospect of being eclipsed by Netanyahu may have been weighing heavily on Sharon's mind Wednesday when revived the possibility of joining Barak in a national unity government, which might delay the poll — but it's not clear whether he was speaking for himself or for his party, or whether Barak would seriously entertain the offer at this point.

Referendum on Peace

The renewed Palestinian uprising will create a dramatic backdrop to the election expected to be held late in the Spring at the earliest. Likud will play to Israeli fears arising out of the current violence, charging that Barak's peacemaking efforts had been naïve and that Israel needed an even harsher response to Palestinian actions. Barak will stand firm on the principle that Israel has no alternative but to make peace with the Palestinians, and will remind the electorate of the conspicuous failures of both Netanyahu and Sharon to make progress on this front.

For Yasser Arafat, the election poses what has become a frustrating dilemma for the Palestinian leadership each time Israel goes to the polls — do they restrain Palestinians for fear of stampeding Israeli voters to the right, or do they press on regardless of whether the man they'll ultimately face across the negotiating table is Netanyahu or Barak. But the election also presents Arafat with an opportunity: After all, the Palestinian leader knows the intifada alone will not force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, and a return to negotiations is inevitable — and Barak now needs a peace deal more than ever.