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Israel Is Set to Vote--and This Time, It Will Swing to the Right

November 29, 2000|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — As Israel prepares for elections following the failure of Ehud Barak's government, the question of who will run against him is hardly straightforward.

Though Ariel Sharon currently heads the Likud opposition, the party's candidate could turn out to be former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In every poll taken in recent months, Netanyahu has beaten Barak by as much as 20%, while Sharon has only lately inched ahead of the Labor Party leader. Astonishingly, in barely 18 months in office, Barak has managed to make much of the country nostalgic for Netanyahu, who as prime minister alienated almost all his party colleagues.

Yet Barak, Israel's most-decorated war hero and a brilliant strategist who beat Netanyahu in a landslide vote, has acquired the very reputation for arrogance and incompetence that led to Netanyahu's downfall. And except for withdrawing Israeli troops from Lebanon--which has turned out to be a security fiasco, bringing Hezbollah terrorists to Israel's northern border--he hasn't implemented any campaign promise. The ex-general who assured Israelis that no one could be better trusted than him with the country's security has so far failed to quell Palestinian violence. And the candidate who promised to sign peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians within 18 months of entering office has instead presided over the total collapse of the Oslo accords. And now, with car bombings returning to Israel's streets, many recall the drastic decline in terrorism during Netanyahu's rule.

In fact, Barak's candidacy is by no means guaranteed. Labor left-wingers may try to oust him in party primaries. Even former prime minister and Oslo architect Shimon Peres--who is 77 and has never won an election (he was appointed prime minister after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination)--is considering a primary race against Barak.

Ironically, almost no one wants the coming elections. A clear majority of Israelis had hoped to see Labor and Likud unite in a national unity government that would deal with escalating terrorism and threats of regional war. And both Sharon and Barak preferred a national unity government to elections, in part because both fear the return of Netanyahu. But Netanyahu's supporters in the Likud parliamentary faction repeatedly blocked Sharon's entry into the government and are now preparing the way for their leader's comeback.

After last year's electoral defeat, Netanyahu disappeared from public sight, preoccupied with a police investigation into alleged bribery. Following his exoneration, he began making limited media appearances, conceding that he'd made mistakes and implying that next time he'd do better.

Since the intifada, he's appeared publicly with greater frequency, presenting himself as a statesman offering advice to Barak rather than the divisive politician he'd been as prime minister. If reelected, Netanyahu will almost certainly resume his tough and effective policy of "reciprocity," demanding concrete Palestinian steps to control terrorism in exchange for Israeli territorial concessions.

If Sharon, who is perceived internationally as an Israeli Slobodan Milosevic, manages to maintain control of the Likud and beat Barak, Israel could face unprecedented diplomatic isolation.

In fact, Sharon is far more complex than his image abroad allows. It was, after all, Sharon who presided over the uprooting of Israeli settlements in the Sinai following the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in the early 1980s. And Sharon helped convince a reluctant Netanyahu to sign the Wye agreement with Yasser Arafat. Sharon, who believes a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians is impossible, instead advocates interim agreements, including limited territorial concessions--a position that Barak himself appears to be adopting.

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