- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000

The American political scene may be chaotic, but Israel's is not to be sneezed at either. On a day when the U.S. 2000 election produced the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered Florida's vote counters to cease their activities immediately, suspending the instructions issued by the Florida Supreme Court, Israel produced a headline grabber of its own. Basically without warning, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced his resignation, which will lead to special elections for prime minister within the next 60 days.

Mr. Barak styled his move a referendum on the peace progress, which has been badly, maybe fatally, damaged by the violence that has raged since late September. "I took this decision in view of the emergency situation … and to obtain a renewed mandate from the people," Mr. Barak said at a brief news conference. He also pointed to the actions taken by the Israeli Knesset, which last month called for early parliamentary elections.

That Mr. Barak has lost the faith of a large portion of the Israeli public and needs a new mandate to proceed is beyond question. For five months he has governed without a majority in parliament. The concessions offered the Palestinian leadership at Camp David have been rejected. Indeed, they may have spurred the recent outbreaks of violence. Since September, more than 300 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians.

But there is more to Mr. Barak's snappy move than that, something more tactical and less high-minded. The man most likely to beat him in the election for prime minister is the man he beat in the last election, former Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, were the election to be held today, Mr. Netanyahu would receive 50 percent of the vote, compared to Mr. Barak's 38 percent. However, in a special election such as this, only sitting members of the Knesset can run, which precludes Mr. Netanyahu. Yesterday, the former prime minister reacted quickly by stating that he would take up the fight nonetheless (possibly through a change in Israel's election law). He called Mr. Barak's move "anti-democratic" and added "I think that if someone is scared of a fight, he has a good reason." Not only did Mr. Barak calculate that he would be fighting current Likud leader Arial Sharon, but he also moved to foreclose the option for his own competition within the Labor Party, none of whom have come forward.

Will this maneuver produce a second chance for Mr. Barak? Not very likely. He was elected in the first place as an unknown quantity in political terms, a respected soldier, but a man whose political talents were a blank slate. The peace he promised has turned into destruction and despair, and as a consequence it may well be that Israelis would want to endorse a slower, more conservative approach to the Palestinian situation. This was what Mr, Netanyahu offered in the first place. The Palestinians, in their turn, have in effect rejected both approaches and may well calculate that at least a Netanyahu government in power will bring them more sympathy on the world stage.

As for the U.S, government, one can only hope that with our own political turmoil, American politicians will be too preoccupied to poke their noses into Israel's affairs this time. In the previous election, it will be recalled, Clinton operatives like James Carville were dispatched to help secure a Barak victory. A lot of good that did the cause of peace.

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