Israel's Political War Over Peace

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Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak drops his bombshell

As Florida goes, so goes Israel? The Jewish state's election, too, seemed poised Monday to be settled in a complex series of maneuvers in courtrooms and legislatures — although in Israel's case the maneuvering would take place long before the voting. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday declared his intention to run for the nation's top job, following Ehud Barak's shock decision to resign and seek a new mandate in fresh elections. But as things currently stand, Netanyahu is disqualified from the race: Barak resigned under a special law that requires, in such circumstances, a direct election for prime minister from among current members of parliament. And Benjamin Netanyahu is not currently in parliament. Indeed, Barak's gambit was widely viewed as an end run around his most dangerous opponent — Israeli polls show Netanyahu leading the prime minister by 45 percent to 27 percent.

The power of silence

The poll numbers are an eloquent testimony to the power of silence. After all, Netanyahu (like his pal Newt Gingrich) took himself off the scene entirely after his humiliating defeat by Barak only 18 months ago, and his support has grown largely on a wave of anxiety over Barak's handling of the Palestinian uprising. But he won't be able to translate that support into a comeback victory without the help of the legislature, or perhaps even the court. Netanyahu needs parliament to either overturn the special law under which Barak called the election, or else to proceed quickly with the legislation to dissolve itself that was initiated two weeks ago. If parliament is dissolved, an election is required for both the top job and the legislature itself, in which Netanyahu believes he could lead the Likud party to victory.

Barak may be banking on the legislators' being too attached to their jobs to pass that bill in time. Many of the smaller parties that share the Knesset with Likud and Barak's Labor party have little interest in a new parliamentary vote — most importantly, the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which grew substantially at Likud's expense in the last election, but which may shed some of those gains in an election fought in the heat of a Palestinian uprising. And Netanyahu also has to dispense with the Likud incumbent, Ariel Sharon, who has no plans to step aside for a man who, while indisputably more popular and charismatic, is reviled even in important sections of his own party after leading it last year to its worst defeat at the polls in decades.

Peace through strength?

Peace with the Palestinians will be the central — perhaps the only — issue in the campaign. Netanyahu has denounced Barak for showing "weakness" in dealing with the Palestinians, and promises instead a return to his peace-through-strength policies. Barak is hoping to remind voters why they deserted Netanyahu in droves 18 months ago — precisely because he'd brought the peace process grinding to a halt. But Israeli voters have little enthusiasm for the peace process right now, even if a majority of them may ultimately accept it as a necessary evil. Early opinion polls suggest that no matter which personalities represent the various parties, the "peace camp" is in for a drubbing in the next election because of voters' sense that they've been betrayed by their Palestinian peace partners.

Which brings us to the question of Arafat

Even before his latest maneuver, conventional wisdom among Israeli pundits has been that Barak can't win reelection unless he has a peace deal with Arafat around which to campaign, the calculation being that he might conceivably win an election that could be painted as a referendum choice between peace and war. But there's no sign of any agreement on the horizon, and Palestinian public opinion has turned as much, if not more, against the peace process as the Israeli electorate has. Still, for a man who had come to believe that diplomacy and negotiation would win him his cherished Palestinian state, Arafat can't be comfortable contemplating Israel's turn from a prime minister who has offered the Palestinian leader less than he needs to a prime minister who won't give Arafat the time of day without first being dragged to Washington or plunged into a security crisis.