Israelis Set for 'Lesser Evil' Poll

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Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres seen during an opening ceremony in Tel Aviv

Israelis don't vote for their leaders so much as against their opponents. And that makes an Ehud Barak–Ariel Sharon showdown for prime minister a tight contest, because both men have high negative ratings for their record in Israeli leadership. And with the likelihood of a much smaller turnout than in a full parliamentary election, the race may be too close to call despite Sharon's substantial lead in the polls.

Barak received a boost Thursday when former Prime Minister Shimon Peres bowed out of the race, failing to secure the backing of the leftist Meretz party. Barak supporters had urged Peres to back out to avoid splitting the peace camp and handing an easier victory to Sharon — but the fact that many polls showed Peres having a better chance than Barak of beating Sharon is an indicator of the scale of the challenge facing the prime minister.

Polls will be polls

Even absent the challenge from Peres on his left flank, Barak will certainly struggle to beat Sharon, according to the current poll numbers. But poll numbers may be misleading, since it's far from clear that the supporters of the religious parties and other smaller groups will actually bother to vote. These factions typically express their support for a prime ministerial candidate during a parliamentary election in which they're going to the polls primarily to vote for their own party, but this election is only for the post of prime minister. The rabbis may simply advise supporters of the religious parties, for example, to stay in their religious schools and study the Talmud on election day. (And reserve the right to bring down the winner if he fails to satisfy their demands.) Also, nobody yet knows how or whether the Russian immigrants or the Israeli Arabs will vote inlarge numbers. Support given or withdrawn by each of those groups has been known to swing an election.

Sharon will wage pretty much the same campaign as Benjamin Netanyahu would have, although the former prime minister's disastrous first term would have offered a bigger target for Barak's attack dogs. Instead, they'll blame Sharon for the Lebanon war, which Barak ended last June in a move that was welcomed by Israelis across partisan lines. And they'll charge that the methods that have earned Sharon the nickname "The Bulldozer" are unlikely to bring peace. But Sharon's team will hammer Barak on the breakdown of the peace process, accusing him of dangerous naïveté and of being an amateurish negotiator. Any new peace agreement that Barak manages to cobble together before President Clinton leaves the White House will be poo-pooed by Sharon, who'll counsel caution and insist on slowing things down.

Clinton's last dance

Barak, of course, is not naïve enough to believe he can get a final peace deal in the next four to five weeks, despite the last-ditch effort by President Clinton Wednesday to interest both sides in a comprehensive U.S. settlement proposal that would give the Palestinians 90 percent of the lands occupied by Israel in 1967, and split sovereignty over Jerusalem in a complex formula. Nobody is particularly optimistic about the deal flying at this late stage. And besides, it may be only a matter of weeks before "The Bulldozer" is in charge.

With reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem