The Shas effect
Netanyahu's dramatic comeback bid was derailed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which was prepared to support him once again for prime minister, but not at its own expense. The party's 17 seats give it a kingmaking and -breaking role in the fractious legislature, and that's powerful leverage for a minority party. But polls indicate that it would lose between four and six seats to Likud in a parliamentary election right now. Both parties draw support primarily from immigrants from Arab countries, and analysts predict that in an election focused almost exclusively on peace and security issues, there'd be a stampede of voters from the religious party back to the secular nationalists.
Barak has a better chance against Sharon
Netanyahu, of course, will still be a major feature in the campaign, urging voters to support the man he'd have challenged for the Likud leadership, Ariel Sharon. But Barak who may face (and will almost certainly defeat) a primary challenge from former prime minister Shimon Peres must fancy his chances of reeling in Sharon's lead over the incumbent. After all, Sharon is Israel's most notorious hawk, and even though Israelis have little confidence in the peace process right now, it may be more difficult for Likud to rally a majority behind a man many Israelis fear will be more inclined to inflame Palestinian and Arab rage. But the only certainty in the outcome is that it will produce another unstable government. Bibi may just decide to bide his time for the next election, which may not be all that long in coming.
With reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem