Why Bibi Bowed Out

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Netanyahu gestures while addressing a news conference in Jerusalem

Boris Yeltsin always survived impeachment votes in a parliament heavily stacked against him for one simple reason — the legislators wanted to keep their jobs, and ousting him would have meant new elections. Now Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak may have benefited from a similar effect. His most dangerous challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, bowed out of the February election Monday, citing the legislature's refusal to vote for a full new election. Instead, the Knesset voted on a special "Bibi Bill" to allow any citizen to run in February's poll, which is only for the post of prime minister (the law had previously restricted the elections to members of the current parliament). Although polls have Netanyahu leading Barak by a 2-to-1 margin, the former prime minister demurred rather than pursue a landslide victory and inherit Barak's lame-duck status. In the best-case scenario, he'd be able to count on only 58 votes in the 120-seat legislature

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