Barak's Best Bet Is to Aim for a Close Second

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Clutching at straws? Barak at a campaign rally

Ehud Barak is telling the foreign press that the elections haven't begun in earnest, and that he still believes he'll win. Answering questions about how little he's campaigning, he's adopting an "I have not yet begun to fight" posture, promising surprises and so on. Is he deluding himself, or can he still win this election?

He's refusing to give up, that's for sure, at a stage when a lot of people around him have given up — if not publicly then privately. People close to Barak acknowledge it doesn't look good for him. And people in the Labor party who don't support Barak have been saying loudly for weeks that he can't beat Sharon.

It's hard to see what surprises he could still have up his sleeve. The one surprise he could pull is letting Peres take over, because the polls give Peres a far stronger chance against Sharon. But backing out would not be the surprise of a fighter. Barak also has this possible meeting with Arafat on Sunday, at which they could put together some type of declaration, but even that would't amount to much.

Barak's people say even if he won, it would be another six to eight weeks of negotiations before there was a peace deal. That means he's not going to be able to pull a peace deal out of the hat on Sunday to dramatically turn the election. A handshake with Arafat and a declaration is unlikely to win back voters who've been left unconvinced by his handling of the peace process.

If Barak isn't campaigning very energetically, what is Sharon doing?

He's campaigning a fair amount, but his campaign also has the advantage of having an awful lot of volunteers — just as Barak did in the last election. People sign on for a campaign because they can smell victory. There are a lot more Sharon posters out there than Barak posters.

So what's the read on Barak's thinking from the people around him?

Nobody really knows because Barak doesn't confide in anyone. They simply say he functions best when his back is against the wall. But realistically, his main objective may be to ensure that the margin of his defeat is small, so that he has a credible claim to continue leading the Labor party. If voting goes according to the opinion polls, he'll lose by the largest margin ever for an incumbent prime minister, which would almost certainly cost him the party leadership. If he loses by a margin that leaves him a credible candidate, he could then join Sharon in a unity government.

It appears Israeli voters have been left with a kind of Hobson's choice, in which they're going to have to vote against the candidate they like least or fear most...

Yes, although Likud is behind Sharon, the truth is that they hadn't actually planned to put him up as a candidate for prime minister. This election, remember, was not scheduled; it was called in extraordinary circumstances. Sharon had been given the party leadership as a stopgap option, to avoid a power struggle between the would-be candidates for party leader. So it's likely that when the next general election comes — by 2003 at the latest, or a lot earlier if Sharon's government collapses — Sharon will be challenged for the leadership of Likud.

If Barak manages to survive as party leader under a Sharon government, he will probably be able to strengthen his position in his own party. But his experience in this election shows what a poisoned chalice the Labor party leadership has become. It's hard to imagine more malicious, backbiting, self-interested group of politicians anywhere in the world. Barak has faced a daily barrage of malicious leaks to the point that you have to feel sorry for the poor fellow.