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
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
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
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
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
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.