For Barak, Another Small Victory

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Out of the running: Former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres

In the end Israel's doves opted to back Ehud Barak, although the strength of the challenge by Shimon Peres suggests they're not exactly bullish about the prime minister. The leftist Meretz party ended Peres's hopes late Thursday, by declining to nominate him as a candidate in Israel's prime ministerial election on February 6. That's good news for Barak, whose supporters have been pleading with Meretz to support the prime minister so as to avoid splitting the peace camp, although the strength of the challenge by arch-dove Peres bodes ill for Barak's efforts to regain the confidence of an electorate that had, only eight months ago, handed him a landslide victory over Benjamin Netanyahu. There also appears to have been some horse-trading going on, with Peres having been offered "a senior position in accord with his experience and ability." It was not clear what that job might be or whether he would take it up.

Wake up and smell the perfume

While Barak was never going to back out of the race, opinion polls certainly gave Peres the right to throw his hat in the ring: Despite carrying a "loser" label after having been beaten by Netanyahu in 1996 and losing a parliamentary vote earlier this year for the ceremonial position of president, current polls give Peres a better chance than Barak of beating Sharon. Moreover, Israelis rate him as the best man for the job of making peace with the Palestinians. But polls, as Peres himself once noted, are like perfume — they should be smelled, but not swallowed. Israeli voters tend to vote against rather than for candidates, and the numbers supporting supreme dove Peres may be an expression of unhappiness over Barak's performance in the peace process. But given a stark choice between Sharon, an arch-hawk nicknamed "The Bulldozer," and Barak, skeptical doves will probably follow Meretz's lead and back the prime minister. Despite Sharon's substantial lead in the polls, the election remains too close to call: Many of the smaller parties have no direct stake in an election exclusively for the post of prime minister, and even if their supporters answer pollsters' questions, they may not actually make it to the polls on election day. But after harsh police action against Israeli-Arabs protesting in support of Palestinians earlier this year, Barak will be unable to count on their votes this time around.

Sharon 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 pooh-poohed by the hawkish former general, 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. For one thing, it may be only a matter of weeks before "The Bulldozer," whose nickname was earned largely at the expense of the Palestinians, is in charge.

With reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem