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Israeli Elections 2001—Barak vs. Sharon
December 2000

The last few weeks have been among the most confusing and convoluted in Israeli political history.  With amazing speed, political alliances were made and broken, candidates appeared and disappeared, primaries and even elections for the Knesset were not taking place, then taking place and then not taking place again.  Now, less than forty-five days before the February 6, 2000 Israeli elections for Prime Minister it is certain that Prime Minister Barak will be facing off against Likud leader Ariel Sharon, though it is not clear that they will be alone in the race.
While these games are played in the corridors of the Knesset, much of the public is fed up with their leaders, who seem unable to leave the stage no matter how many failures (perceived or real) they incur. Accordingly, unless a firm peace deal is on the election agenda, voter turnout on February 6 is predicted to be uncharacteristically low.     

On Saturday night, December 9, 2000, following several weeks of criticism both from within his own party and in the Knesset at large, Prime Minister Barak threw down the gauntlet to his critics within the Israeli parliament by announcing his resignation. Thus he set in motion the process of Prime Ministerial elections, which constitutionally must take place the last Tuesday of a sixty-day period, from when the formal resignation is presented to the President.

According to the Basic Law: The Government, which went into effect in 1996, Israelis vote separately for the Prime Minister and the Knesset. Although under usual circumstances both polls occur concurrently, this need not always be the case. Barak's resignation initially constituted just such an exceptional scenario. As a direct result of the resignation itself, Prime Ministerial elections alone were constitutionally required to take place on the last Tuesday of a 60 day period from when the resignation came into effect. In the Prime Ministerial polls, the victor must claim more than 50% of the votes, otherwise a second round follows on the next Tuesday. Then, the new Prime Minister has 45 days in which to form a new government. Failure to do so results in another special election.
Under the election law, only Members of Knesset are eligible for candidacy in the special elections in the case of a Prime Ministerial resignation.  Therefore if only prime ministerial elections were held, someone who is currently not an M.K. (such as Benjamin Netanyahu) would not be eligible to run. Therefore, when Barak’s resignation set in play elections only for the position of Prime Minister, conventional wisdom had it that he had done so in order to prevent Netanyahu (for whom the polls predicted a landslide victory) from challenging him. 

There were, however, other motivations for Barak’s surprising move. Since July, with the exit of Shas from his coalition, Barak has suffered with a small minority in the Knesset. With the outbreak of the "Al Aqsa Intifada" and the rapidly worsening security conditions, Barak has been under increasingly heavy parliamentary criticism and the fragmented Knesset has made it even more difficult for him to govern.


In his announcement of resignation Barak declared that he was seeking reconfirmation of Knesset support for his attempts to subdue the hostilities and at the same time to pursue his agenda, if possible, toward negotiating an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.  He added that he worked to save the country the cost and confusion of  general elections and thus would be satisfied with a personal ratification for his premiership.


Nevertheless, the accusation that Barak has resigned rather than call general elections, in order to cynically prevent Netanyahu from challenging him was rife.  In order to quash such speculation, Barak declared that he would support a special bill to amend the basic law to enable someone who is not a member of Knesset to be a candidate for the Premiership.


Netanyahu, however, realized that even if he managed a comeback and be elected Prime Minister, the current makeup of the Knesset would make it just as difficult for him to govern as it has currently been for Barak, if not more so.  Moreover, the polls indicated that in a Knesset election, the right wing would make substantial gains.  So Netanyahu went for bust, demanding full general elections or he would withdraw his candidacy for Prime Minister.  However, Netanyahu seemed to have exaggerated his own importance in the eyes of his potential political allies, amongst the Shas party in particular.  For Shas and others had no interest in general elections in which polls showed they would lose seats and thus be politically weakened.  While the right wing wanted Bibi to return, they did not want him to do so at their expense.


The result was that while the Knesset did pass an amendment to allow Netanyahu to stand for the Premiership, the Knesset did not vote to dissolve itself and Netanyahu was out of the race.


This meant in effect that Likud leader Ariel Sharon was left unchallenged as the Party's candidate for the premiership.  Barak had succeeded in the meantime in receiving the Labor Party's re-endorsement for his candidacy and the two will now contend for the position even though it is possible that there may still be others in the race.


The question still remains however as to Barak's strategy.  Even if he receives the public mandate, he will still have the unwieldy Knesset to contend with.  What will he really have gained in the process?  The answer appears to be time.


Parallel to the internal political upheaval, and the real possibility of a new right wing government in Israel, there are rumors of renewed contacts with the Palestinians. Barak is apparently more than ever engaged in chasing his avowed aim – achieving some kind of agreement with the Palestinians very soon.  Most importantly, his "political" sleight of hand seems to have conjured up the requisite breathing space that such a path would demand.  With public sympathy for final status negotiations probably more conditional than it has been for some time, winning this breathing space is no mean feat.  There can be little doubt that to fight and win Prime Ministerial elections, Barak must deliver some kind of agreement.  There are not many Israelis who would be willing to re-endorse his mandate simply on the basis of his ability to effectively combat Palestinian unrest.  But if he can deliver some real hope for a peace agreement and an end to the hostilities then, as polls indicate, he could not only get overwhelming public support, but could also silence enough of the opposition in the Knessset to continue to govern. 

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