JERUSALEM — Six months ago, some of Israel's strongest proponents of peace said they didn't think Labor Party leader Ehud Barak had the right stuff to beat hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now, less than a week before the elections, something seems to be going right in Mr. Barak's campaign, as a survey commissioned by Yediot Ahronot newspaper shows him edging ahead of Mr. Netanyahu by about 8 percent in a one-on-one race.
Doubts over Barak's personal magnetism - in comparison with Netanyahu's telegenic and polished campaign style - led to the formation of the new Center Party, which said its group of prominent moderates was better poised to oust Netanyahu. But with support for their leader, Yitzhak Mordechai, quickly dwindling in the polls, there are rumblings that the party will pull Mr. Mordechai out of the race for prime minister and run only as a slate for Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Barak's lurch ahead in the polls so close to the May 17 ballot is a significant shift from past elections, in which it was usually the right-wing Likud Party that gained more support closer to election day. In the 1996 election, for example, the lead enjoyed by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres disappeared in the weeks before the election as undecided "floating voters" moved into Netanyahu's camp. "It is the first time in many years that there has been a shift in the Labor side of the equation at this late stage in the campaign," says Hanoch Smith, a veteran Israeli pollster. "Most of the people who are leaving Mordechai are going over to support Barak."
In his campaign rhetoric, Netanyahu has been painting Barak as an ultraliberal who will give in to all Palestinian demands, especially their claim to East Jerusalem as their capital. Barak, taking cues from James Carville, who ran the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, has been attacking the Netanyahu camp for the economic slump that has unfolded under its watch. But there has been little if any real debate on the raison d'tre of the election: how and whether to continue trading land for peace with the Palestinians, and to consider negotiations with other neighbors such as Lebanon and Syria.
Many say that's because the concept of the peace process itself is no longer in question, as the majority of Israelis have come to accept the need for some kind of peace deal with the Palestinians. What's left is a more personal battle over integrity, character, and leadership ability.
"The question is, who's going to be the best manager for the company called the State of Israel," says Efraim Inbar, a professor of political science at Bar-Illan University near Tel Aviv. "Ideology is over."