Israel's unfolding leadership battle

Barak's resignation yesterday sidelines his main rival. Palestinian peace talks on hold.

Uncertainty. Bitterness. Confusion. The elements of political drama were injected into Israeli politics with Prime Minister Ehud Barak's resignation yesterday.

Mr. Barak - politically isolated and his popularity sagging - made a preemptive move to block former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from challenging him for the leadership. But Palestinians say Barak's move has halted any near-term peace negotiations. And, political opponents say his tactics call into question his commitment to democracy.

Barak's resignation starts the clock on an election within 60 days thus making it difficult - though not impossible - for Netanyahu to run.

Mr. Netanyahu, who now leads Barak in the polls, isn't a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Under current rules this prevents him from running in an election in which only the prime minister and not the Knesset will be chosen According to legislation outlining the procedures for forming a government, only members of the Knesset are allowed to become prime minister. Netanyahu, who is outpolling Barak by 46 percent to 27 percent, according to the Maariv newspaper, relinquished his Knesset seat after being trounced by Barak in the May 1999 elections. Barak told reporters Saturday night while announcing his surprise step that it aims to "renew the mandate and trust" of Israelis in their prime minister so that he can effectively handle the confrontation with the Palestinians and other challenges facing the country.

But Netanyahu supporters, joined by Israeli commentators in all three major daily newspapers, saw a different motive. "Ehud Barak yesterday went beyond determining when the election for prime minister will be, he sought to determine who the candidates are," wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, stressed that they would not rush to reach an agreement with Barak in order to boost him in the election. "It means the peace talks will stop until the elections are over and this is not the first time the talks and implementation are delayed," Reuters quoted Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as telling reporters in Gaza City.

Palestinian legislator Jamal Shobaky responded to Barak's resignation by saying that Palestinians see little difference between Labor and Likud and that despite early hopes for a breakthrough with Barak, in some respects they had fared better under the Netanyahu government. "There was more expansion of settlements during Barak's government," Shobaky said. "Barak has not recognized Palestinian rights, and he wants to keep 80 percent of the settlers in the settlements. We associate the Labor Party with the killing of civilians during the uprising."

Netanyahu's removal from the running would likely pit Barak against the lackluster Ariel Sharon, who enjoys only a narrow lead over the prime minister in the polls.

But Netanyahu supporters are vowing to change the legislation to enable him to run.

Netanyahu, who has taken on a higher public profile recently but avoided explicitly declaring his candidacy, is now going to have to start confronting Barak, his supporters said yesterday. "He is going to have to get his feet wet now. This situation is so antidemocratic that he has no choice," said Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud member of the Knesset.

"We are going to create such pressure and such a public atmosphere that people will say there is no way a democracy can prevent the person who is leading in the polls from running," she said.

Ms. Blumenthal says Netanyahu supporters have two strategies for ensuring his candidacy: first, to persuade the Knesset to pass legislation allowing for any citizen to become prime minister and second, to persuade the Knesset to vote to complete legislation to dissolve itself that passed an initial reading two weeks ago. That would force new Knesset elections, which would be fixed for the same date as the prime ministerial contest. Netanyahu would then be able to run simultaneously for both the Knesset and the premiership.

Barak yesterday readied for a battle over the holding of Knesset elections, and was trying to enlist the backing of the dovish Meretz party to thwart them. Leslie Susser, diplomatic affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine, says that the outcome would likely be decided by the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which relishes playing off Labor and Likud. With seventeen seats in the Knesset, it would probably not be anxious for a new Knesset election that could reduce that number, he said.

Israel Radio quoted Barak as telling Meretz leaders that elections for the Knesset "would waste energy and undermine the effort to gain public confidence for diplomatic moves" with the Palestinians.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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