While Barak's shock decision may appear to be a victory for the opposition Likud party of Ariel Sharon, it's decidedly double-edged. Barak had previously indicated that he would hold new elections some time next spring, in which pundits have been predicting he'd be trounced by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was expected to challenge Sharon for the Likud nomination. But when the prime minister simply resigns, Israel's constitution requires an election for his replacement from among members of the current parliament which excludes Netanyahu. The former prime minister had resigned his seat to take a "time out" from politics shortly after his defeat by Barak last year, and now Barak's latest gambit keeps Netanyahu on the sidelines.
Although the polls show Netanyahu way ahead of Barak, his party will now be forced to field Ariel Sharon as its candidate, or else turn to a leader of less national experience such as the rough-and-tumble grassroots organizer Silvan Shalom or the feisty party spokeswoman Limor Livnat. Either way, Barak clearly knows he has a better chance against any Likud candidate other than Netanyahu. Sharon certainly has higher negatives against his name than Netanyahu no mean feat in light of the fact that the former prime minister is widely loathed even in his own party, after leading Likud to its worst electoral showing in decades last year. The role of Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount last September in sparking the current Palestinian intifada won't be forgotten by Barak's attack dogs.
A hawkish dove
But even if he's not the candidate, Netanyahu may yet play a central role in the campaign at Barak's expense. As much as he's stolen a march and confounded his opponents' best-laid plans, Barak's advantage may only be temporary. After all, he's the peace candidate, and conventional wisdom in Israel's punditocracy has been that Barak can't win reelection unless he has a peace agreement with the Palestinians on which to base his campaign. The continuing violence, which showed signs of escalating last Friday in a day of clashes that killed seven Palestinians and three Israelis across the West Bank, renders extremely unlikely the prospect of a peace deal before election day. Instead, Barak will likely seek to underline his credentials as a military man who can maintain the tough posture Israeli voters desire even as he seeks a peace agreement. Voters have shown growing concern over the fact that their vaunted security forces appear to have been unable to respond decisively to the intifada, and their rising fear and despair has counted against Barak'S chances of reelection until now. But Barak showed Saturday that he clearly has a reelection plan, and canny observers of the region don't doubt that it might involve a few nasty surprises for his external enemies, too. After all, soldiering is what the prime minister does best.