Israel is heading for an election that may set a new course for the Mideast peace process.
When hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected by a narrow margin in 1996, he stalled the peace process for a year and a half. Then, when he negotiated the Wye agreement last October, his shaky political coalition began to crumble.
Now, with elections expected within six months, Mr. Netanyahu faces two challengers: Ehud Barak, the head of the opposition Labor Party, and also Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a popular former Army chief, who is expected to be a leading candidate. Although Mr. Lipkin-Shahak has not described what his platform will look like or on which party's ticket he will run, about half of Israelis are apparently ready to vote for him anyway.
Until elections are held, everything is effectively in limbo, from peacemaking with the Palestinians to the Israeli economy - which has no finance minister to oversee it or the year-end budget process that should currently be under way.
Netanyahu's Cabinet voted on Sunday to freeze additional moves to implement Israel's part in the Wye agreement until the Palestinians fulfill a list of commitments Israel says they have failed to uphold. The collection of complaints serves as a kind of notice to the Palestinians and the Clinton administration that Netanyahu will suspend all moves that could be used against him in a court of public opinion - on election day.
Officials in Netanyahu's office argue that this is only natural since former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, when running for election in the spring of 1996, also stopped the transfer of any more West Bank territory to the Palestinians out of fear that it would make him look too weak on security issues.
In a three-way race, left-wing and moderate voters would be split between Lipkin-Shahak and Mr. Barak, possibly paving the way to a reelection victory for Netanyahu.
Calls to join forces
As such, many Israelis concerned primarily with salvaging the peace process are trying to get Lipkin-Shahak and Barak to join forces. Since the two former army chiefs both had close ties to their mentor, slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, widow Leah Rabin is making an open plea to the two men to work together to continue her husband's legacy.
But such a union would require Lipkin-Shahak to join the Labor Party, probably as Barak's No. 2, and Lipkin-Shahak has rejected Barak's offer to do so in favor of running for the top slot - probably on the ticket of a new, centrist party.
Other Israelis, however, including Rabin's two grown children, say the "peace camp" must field the best candidate to unseat Netanyahu, and that appears to be Lipkin-Shahak.
Appointed by Rabin as army chief of staff in 1995, Lipkin-Shahak was intimately involved in implementing the self-rule deal and overseeing the transfer of most of the Gaza Strip and seven West Bank cities from Israeli to Palestinian control. At the time, he seemed to represent a new and enlightened Israeli army - appearing enthusiastic about undoing Israel's military occupation and expressing the need for Israel not to control the lives of Palestinians, all the while keeping an eye on Israel's security needs.
Even as his opponents start to shape their plans to defeat Netanyahu, there are still many scenarios in which Netanyahu may be able to extricate himself from what could be a losing battle.
Netanyahu could ask Israel's president for permission to dissolve the Knesset and submit a government-sponsored bill to hold early elections. New elections would have to be held in 60 days, and Lipkin-Shahak would not be able to join the race because he is required to wait out a 100-day cooling-off period after retiring from the army before assuming political office. If that happens, however, there may be a movement in the Knesset to shorten the length of the waiting period to 50 days.
Analysts say Netanyahu might also resign and call new elections for prime minister - another move that would require a new vote to be held in 60 days. In that case, candidates would be limited to Knesset members, ruling out both Lipkin-Shahak and Ronni Milo, a former Likud party politician who has announced he will form a centrist party, to be headed either by himself or Lipkin-Shahak.
Beginning of the end?
"It looks like this is the beginning of the end. The question is, how long is the finale?" says Reuven Hazan, political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"By some miracle he might be able to defeat this, because he's been able to do it before. His philosophy is not to look long term, his philosophy is to put out fires day by day. But as we head towards final status, we'll have a lame-duck prime minister beholden to the extreme right on the peace process issue. Is this what we want?"
Palestinians are disappointed that a week after they convened an assembly to amend their founding charter calling for Israel's destruction - a requirement in the Oslo and Wye accords - Israel has effectively shut down the peace process for the next few months.
"This is part of Netanyahu's campaign," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says of the new conditions for an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank. Unofficially, Palestinian negotiators realize that Israeli elections could very likely bring about a new government with a much more conciliatory approach to peacemaking. But that strategic assessment is not likely to filter down to Palestinians who have been rioting over the number of prisoners still held in Israel jails and other issues they see as violations of the peace agreement.