Prime Minister Ehud Barak has staked his political career on pursuing negotiations with Palestinians. Opposition leader Ariel Sharon has made a career out of taking a hard line against them.
In elections tomorrow, Israelis will choose between the two men and their starkly opposing visions. Barring a sudden change, polls show voters overwhelmingly picking Mr. Sharon.
The contest between these two former army generals, say some commentators, is a choice between war and peace. Indeed, a victory by the hard-line Sharon would put the Arab world on edge, reshape Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and could prompt another flare-up of violence in the Palestinian territories. But for Israeli voters, reeling from a string of bombings and deadly attacks, the only issue of importance is domestic security, making this election a referendum on the peace process, security, and how best to achieve it.
"People just want to feel safe in their own homes and cars," says Margot Levine, an American-Israeli supporter of Sharon standing at a rain- soaked corner in downtown Jerusalem, where competing plastic banners tout the candidates. Referring to the drive-by shooting of an Israeli doctor last week, she adds, "We have to be tough."
Across the street, Barak supporter Udi Geffen says his only disagreement with Sharon backers is over their approach. "We all want the same thing, an end to conflict, but we have different ways of getting there," he says, hunched under a blue nylon poncho. "We believe in negotiation. [Sharon supporters] want to use a clenched fist."
But it seems that Israelis are yearning for a tougher approach, with polls giving Sharon leads of 20 percent and more over Barak. Ironically, Sharon can give some thanks to Barak for his commanding advantage.
In 1999, Barak came to office promising peace and has bitterly disappointed Israelis for not coming through on that pledge. Now, instead of peace, Israelis are dealing with an uprising that has claimed 384 lives, most of them Palestinians, since Sept. 28.
"Sharon has the chance of his life to become prime minister, and that's mainly because of disappointment with Barak," says Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Israeli-Arabs, a minority that helped Barak in the 1999 elections, say they'll boycott the elections to protest the killing of 13 Israeli-Arabs by Israeli forces.
A recent series of deadly attacks on Israeli civilians has only hurt Barak further, as his ongoing negotiations weren't yielding enough of a reduction in violence. "If Jews are killed, no talk about trust will help Barak," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
Though most analysts say the intifada would have erupted at some point, the spiral into violence began with Sharon. Accompanied by a phalanx of troops at the end of September, he paid a provocative visit to the holy site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Palestinians oversee the day-to-day running of the site, but Israel has sovereignty, and Sharon used his visit to underscore that point. The act was vintage Sharon, and ignited the current intifada.
The battle-hardened former army officer is known for his belief in might, his passion for the land of Israel, and his ability to get things done - sometimes by bending the rules. As defense minister in the 1980s, he planned the invasion of Lebanon and was often accused of withholding information from the prime minister about his actions there. He was later found indirectly responsible for a 1982 massacre of some 800 Palestinians - many of them women and children - in a refugee camp outside Beirut.
These events and others have earned Sharon the enduring enmity of the Arab world. Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, has told the US that it won't be able to defend its treaty with Israel in the Arab world if Sharon is elected and does not work hard at peace.
Middle Eastern papers have been full of vitriol about him, and the feeling is reportedly mutual. "As a Cabinet minister'&#310; [Sharon] was consistent in rejecting moves toward peace because he continued to view the Arabs as enemies, or at least as hostile forces whose signature could not be trusted," writes Uzi Benziman, a columnist for the daily Ha'aretz.
SHARON'S history with Palestinians within Israel and the territories has also been troubled. As minister of housing from 1990 to 1992, Sharon oversaw the aggressive construction of settlements in the West Bank and has sharply criticized all phases of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the campaign trail, he has declared that he will not honor any agreements made between Barak and the Palestinian Authority. While Barak would cede 95 percent of the West Bank to Palestinians, Sharon says his figure would be 42 percent.
A Sharon election is likely to provoke an upsurge in violence in the territories, says Mr. Inbar of Bar Ilan University, who foresees attacks by the anti-peace Islamic groups Hizbullah or Hamas. "They'll test him immediately," he says. Yet Inbar is among the many who feel that Israel needs Sharon's hard-line stance toward Arabs and Palestinians right now. "International conduct is based on an image of the enemy, and Ariel Sharon is a more deterrent power than anyone else," says Inbar, referring to tensions with Syria along Israel's border with Lebanon.
If an agreement with Palestinians is reached, "to some extent Ariel Sharon is probably the best one to do it," he continues. "As part of the [political] right and the architect of the settlement policy, he's the only one to remove a few settlements."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society