Drama intensifies as Netanyahu bows out

JERUSALEM, Dec. 19 (JTA) – Former Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw from the race for prime minister has injected high drama into an election story already full of surprises.

Netanyahu’s move came just weeks after he declared his intention to enter the race.

Moreover, his decision on Tuesday came only hours after the Knesset passed legislation specifically tailored to enable him to run in the special election for the premiership, which was triggered after Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced his resignation earlier this month.

If Netanyahu does decide to stay out of the race – he could still change his mind – it would help Barak’s re-election chances.

Barak has trailed Netanyahu consistently in public opinion polls. His standing against Ariel Sharon, the current Likud leader, is less clear.

Despite Netanyahu’s move, Barak may yet find himself running against a former premier.

Shimon Peres said Tuesday he is weighing a run when special elections are held in early February.

Peres, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has been pressed by some in the peace camp to put forward his candidacy.

Netanyahu’s decision came after the Knesset on Monday night defeated legislation he had sought to dissolve itself and hold general elections for both a new Parliament and prime minister.

Wary of facing the same political deadlock that Barak has confronted, Netanyahu had said he would only run for the premiership if the Knesset voted to dissolve itself.

As a result of his decision, Likud officials canceled party primaries scheduled for Tuesday, naming Sharon as its nominee by default.

Commentaries in the Israeli press Monday puzzled over Netanyahu’s decision to pull out of the race.

Netanyahu was a consistent favorite over all other candidates for the premiership in Israeli opinion polls.

The Knesset on Monday removed the legal hurdle to his running, by giving final approval to an amendment – known before it passed as the “Netanyahu bill” – that allows any person to run for prime minister in a special election.

The Israeli law that was amended had stipulated that only sitting Knesset members can run for prime minister in special elections – and Netanyahu resigned from the Knesset after Barak defeated him in May 1999.

Shlomi Yerushalmi, writing in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, likened Netanyahu to a tornado that blew into Israel, practically carried off the entire political system into the unknown, and then disappeared as quickly as it came.

Chemi Shalev, writing in the same paper, suggested that perhaps Netanyahu simply decided he didn’t feel like running.

Meanwhile, Peres met Tuesday with Yossi Sarid, leader of the dovish Meretz Party, which would likely rally behind Peres should he decide to run.

But Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin, a prot‚g‚ of Peres, has come out sharply against a Peres candidacy, saying it would only split the Labor Party and serve the Likud.

Special elections for prime minister, triggered by Barak’s resignation earlier this month, are expected to be held on Feb. 6. If that date remains firm, Peres needed to decide by Thursday, the deadline for submitting candidacy.

However, the deadline may be extended.

Election board officials on Tuesday asked Knesset officials to put off the special elections by a month, saying the current date in early February did not leave enough time to make logistical preparations.

Some reports quoted observers as saying Peres – who is highly popular abroad, but has the reputation of a loser in Israeli politics – was unlikely to run.

They add that his current deliberations are aimed primarily at annoying Barak, who has largely sidelined Peres in the current government.

Furthermore, Peres’ candidacy could be undercut if the U.S.-led peace effort getting under way in Washington this week bears fruit.

Barak’s re-election hopes are pinned on there being progress in the talks.

A significant breakthrough would make it possible to turn the upcoming election into a referendum on peace with the Palestinians, which a majority of Israelis still support.

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