Israel's Leaders Prepare for a Deck-Chair Reshuffle

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Sharon and Barak speak to students of Hadash High shcool in Tel Aviv

Ehud Barak has now suspended negotiations that his critics had dismissed as electioneering. But without the prospect of a peace deal, what tricks does Barak still have in his hat to reel in Ariel Sharon's 16-point lead?

Nothing. If we can assume that he won't hold any new talks before the election, it's difficult to see what he can pull out of the hat. Unless Sharon makes a big mistake of some sort in the next week, it looks as if Barak is going to lose badly on election day.

What about the option of stepping aside and letting the more favored Shimon Peres represent his Labor party against Sharon?

Thre was some momentum behind that idea a while ago, although Peres has been saying all along he's not going to make himself available. Peres may be prepared to join Sharon in a national unity government, and then make his move when it faces a new election two years from now, if not before.

Barak, too, may ultimately prefer the national unity option. It makes sense for him in some ways, but there's so much maneuvering going on that it's too early to pin down. Sharon has said he wants a unity government, with Barak as defense minister. But Barak can't publicly favor a unity government, because the basis of his campaign is that Sharon is beyond the pale — "Too extreme for Israel," as one of his campaign slogans goes. This even though a couple of months ago Barak was trying to get Sharon into a unity government. Still, if he's campaigning on the basis that Sharon's too extreme, Barak can't easily say he'll join a unity government if he loses.

So Barak is forced to run a negative campaign?

Yes, Sharon hasn't had to vilify Barak nearly as much as Barak has had to paint Sharon as an extremist. Sharon is simply campaigning on the idea that Barak would be great in any job except prime minister. A unity government could actually survive for some time, because it would suit both leaders to avoid a new election. After all, if there was a new election for both parliament and the prime minister's job, Sharon would be challenged by Netanyahu for the leadership of his party. And Barak, too, would probably face an internal challenge.

With neither candidate appearing to inspire voters, can we assume the turnout will be low?

Israel traditionally has pretty good voter turnout, but this time it will probably be lower. It's unlikely that many Israeli-Arabs will vote. And while the rabbi who guides the Sephardic ultra-orthodox Shas party has urged supporters to vote for Sharon, it's not clear whether many of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis plan to urge their followers to vote.

So while Barak has a low showing in the polls, Sharon isn't necessarily going to get more support than you'd expect a right-winger to get. Barak may have lost the support of many who have traditionally voted with the left, but they won't vote for Sharon; they'll simply stay home. As the substantially higher numbers for Peres show, it's not as if the whole of Israel is shifting to the right — they're simply expressing their discontent with Barak.

So what we're going to get here is a reshuffling of the deck chairs rather than an entirely new political arrangement?

If things work out as Barak and Sharon probably hope, it may mean a reshuffling of the deck chairs. It could produce a unity government under Sharon that would last a while. But then that was precisely why Benjamin Netanyahu stayed out of the fray — without a new parliamentary election to change the balance of power, it's simply rearranging the deck chairs on what might still be a political Titanic.

Will that end negotiations with the Palestinians?

Not necessarily. Last week it came out that Sharon's son and a few aides had met a few Arafat aides in Vienna, for wide-ranging discussions. Palestinian sources told me the talks were "not 100 percent negative." And Palestinian negotiator Abu Mazen has spoken to Sharon twice in the last week. It may suit both sides to keep on talking, even if there's a change at the top in Israel.