Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Dec. 9 decision to resign and call a special election in February has thrown the chaotic Israeli political scene and dying Middle East peace process into even more turmoil. In Israel, the Labor leader's gambit is largely viewed as a cynical ploy to keep his most dangerous rival, former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from running against him. Netanyahu left politics last year, and Israeli law says that only current members of parliament can run in a special election for Prime Minister.
Barak's friends, however, portray his move as a last-ditch effort to press the Palestinians into a deal before President Bill Clinton leaves office on Jan. 20. "The idea was to give an ultimatum to Yasser Arafat," says Nimrod Novik, an Israeli businessman and former prime ministerial adviser who is close to Barak. The message: "If you want to deal with Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon, then keep up the violence."
LEAP OF FAITH. Israeli officials and intermediaries are shuttling back and forth to Arafat and his key aides to try to find a basis for new talks. But reviving negotiations after 10 weeks of violence will be next to impossible. Barak will be under pressure not to make concessions that would reward Arafat for the fighting. And it is hard to see how Arafat can agree to new compromises after the violence has left 320 people dead, mostly Palestinians. "The Palestinian public expects gains equal to what they have sacrificed. That plays heavily on [Arafat's] mind," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research, a Ramallah pollster. The only hope, he says, is that one or both of the leaders will make a leap of faith, reckoning that failure to reach agreement before Clinton leaves will doom their people to even more violence. Certainly, there's little optimism about peace under a Netanyahu government. Talks with the Arabs went into deep freeze in his 1996-99 administration.
Netanyahu is scrambling to find a way to run for the premiership. Public opinion, which favors Netanyahu over Barak by 46% to 27%, may well work in the former leader's favor. Netanyahu stands a good chance of winning leadership of the Likud when he takes on the current leader, former Defense Minister Sharon, in a primary on Dec. 19. Sharon leads Barak by just two percentage points. Netanyahu is also lobbying Knesset members, including old foes, in advance of an expected Dec. 20 vote on two laws that would clear the way for him to challenge Barak.
If Netanyahu gets to run and goes on to win, he will have made a remarkable comeback. But he will then have to face what is likely to be a worsening situation with the Palestinians. The peace process and the institutions it has spawned, such as the Palestinian Authority, have lost credibility in the eyes of Palestinians. There is a danger of government breaking down and competing militia leaders filling the vacuum, making future peace talks all the more difficult.
If violence continues to mount in Israel, how might Netanyahu deal with it? He would likely take an even tougher line than Barak toward the Palestinians, striking back hard against terrorist attacks. Some fear the conflagration could spread to other countries, such as Syria. "The biggest issue is the potential for a large-scale war," says Eliot A. Cohen, an Israel expert at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. So far, the region has escaped that catastrophe, but a major setback may be around the corner.