Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ decision not to run for premier in Israel’s Feb. 6 elections has left Israeli voters with just two candidates: Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Party chairman Ariel Sharon.
Peres becomes the second former premier in a week to throw the political scene into turmoil by announcing his candidacy, only to recant days later.
His decision follows the strange spectacle of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced his triumphal return to politics, urged his party to vote against a law allowing him to run, and then pulled out of the race when Parliament refused to disband.
Peres, an architect of the peace process with the Palestinians, is reviled by many right-wing Israelis as dangerously conciliatory.
Hoping to challenge Barak from the left, Peres failed to garner the 10 Knesset supporters needed to put his name on the ballot, as the far-left Meretz Party – Peres’ natural constituency – urged him to unite with Barak.
That leaves only two former generals, both of whom have security credentials – always key with Israeli voters, especially given the current Israeli- Palestinian violence – but also significant negatives.
Barak, Israel’s most-decorated soldier, is a former army chief of staff who earned his wings in daring commando raids behind enemy lines and years ago laid out a visionary plan to modernize the Israel Defense Forces.
Sharon is a veteran of all of Israel’s wars, and distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist during the Sinai campaigns of 1967 and 1973.
Neither candidate lacks for detractors, however.
Elected in a landslide just 18 months ago, Barak, 58, alienated supporters and opponents alike with his allegedly autocratic and paranoid governing style, sidelining the Labor Party’s elder statesmen – such as Peres – and taking little counsel.
A gifted chess player, tinkerer and classical musician with a graduate degree from Stanford, he angered secular voters by abandoning campaign pledges to tackle Israel’s social problems, choosing instead to woo religious backing for his diplomatic strategy.
That effort ultimately failed, as the religious parties bolted Barak’s coalition one by one and his bold peace overtures to Syria and the Palestinian Authority crumbled into dust, on one front, and violence on the other.
In the end, Barak’s quick descent from broad mandate to minority government could be attributed to one main factor: people skills.
Sharon, 72, nicknamed “Bulldozer” for his girth and determination, ha served in six Cabinet posts over the years but has never challenged for the top spot.
Even the most ardent peaceniks admit that when Sharon directed the West Bank settlement campaign under then- Prime Minister Menachem Begin 20 years ago, he demonstrated a brilliant strategic vision – evilly brilliant to those who see the placement of the settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace with the Palestinians.
It was with that same determination that Sharon almost single-handedly led Israel into the Lebanon War in 1982, allegedly deceiving Begin into approving a modest military campaign that masked grandiose regional goals.
He was forced to step down as defense minister when a government commission found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, having failed to foresee the carnage when Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies were allowed into the Palestinian camps.
Sharon’s past leads many Palestinians, and some Western governments, to depict him as a fire-breathing warmonger. In power, however, he often has displayed a surprising pragmatism, ordering the traumatic evacuation of Yamit in northern Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, and signing off on the 1998 Wye Accords with the Palestinians as Netanyahu’s foreign minister.
In the campaign, Sharon is expected to portray Barak as inexperienced and his broad peace concessions as irresponsible.
Barak, for his part, likely will warn that a Sharon victory will mean the end of the peace process.