JERUSALEM, Dec. 10 (JTA) With elections inevitable, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s surprise resignation has been widely interpreted here as a pre-emptive strike designed to keep former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of the race.
Under Israeli law, if the prime minister resigns, special elections for prime minister must be held within 60 days. However, only standing Knesset members can seek the post and Netanyahu gave up his Knesset seat after losing to Barak in May 1999.
But Netanyahu on Sunday denounced Barak’s “cynical trick” and said he indeed will run, placing his faith in the Knesset’s willingness to take the necessary legislative steps to open the election to all candidates.
Saying he was putting his name forward to restore security for “every home, mother and child in Israel,” Netanyahu said he felt obligated to respond to what he called a mounting public demand for him to challenge Barak.
“An hour doesn’t pass when a citizen doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘Come back and make the country what it used to be a place where we could live,’ ” said Netanyahu, who had just returned from a U.S. lecture tour.
Netanyahu’s challenge came hours after Barak submitted his resignation letter to President Moshe Katsav Sunday afternoon and was affirmed by the Labor Party Central Committee as Labor’s candidate in the next elections.
Unless Barak has a last-minute change of heart, his resignation will take effect Tuesday afternoon. However, he will continue to head the government until elections are held.
Katsav said he understood Barak’s desire to reaffirm the public’s confidence as Israel faces an “emergency” situation in its conflict with the Palestinians.
A former army chief and Israel’s most decorated soldier, Barak trounced Netanyahu in the 1999 election by focusing on the stalled peace process and the recession-bound economy.
Since the outbreak of the current Israeli-Palestinian violence, however, Netanyahu has developed an enormous lead over Barak in public opinion polls.
On Saturday night, looking pale and exhausted, Barak called a news conference and launched into a 20-minute, campaign-style speech, at the end of which he stunned the nation by announcing his resignation.
Under political fire fueled by more than 10 weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Barak said he sought a new mandate from the public to carry out his policies. He added that the Israeli opposition offers no security or political alternative.
“There are those who doubt the mandate I received from you, the citizens of Israel,” Barak said. “I have decided to seek a new mandate from the Israeli public and to receive a new mandate and to lead the state of Israel on the way to peace, security, a proper civil and social agenda.”
Barak’s decision forces elections for prime minister within 60 days, but not for the Knesset.
However, there are several scenarios under which Netanyahu could yet run for prime minister:
Passage of early election legislation. The Knesset has given preliminary approval to opposition bills to dissolve the house. Following Barak’s announcement, right- and left-wing legislators said they would still press for early elections. If the bills are approved in two more votes, elections for both prime minister and Knesset would be held within 90 days. In such a case, Netanyahu could run in a Likud Party primary preceding the election.
Passage of a law to allow any citizen to run for prime minister. The fervently Orthodox Shas Party said it would initiate such legislation enabling Netanyahu to run. Commentators noted it is not clear whether there would be sufficient backing for such a bill, which would open a legal Pandora’s box by fundamentally changing the foundations of Israel’s system of government.
A Knesset vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. Passage of such a motion by an absolute majority of 61 in the 120-member house would dissolve the Knesset and force general elections.
Barak said Saturday he would support any initiative to hold early elections or open the prime ministerial race to any citizen. But media reports said Barak and close advisers had already phoned members of the left-wing Meretz Party on Sunday, urging them not to back early election initiatives.
Likud Knesset member Danny Naveh said this only cemented the belief that Barak’s resignation was intended to prevent Netanyahu from running.
If Netanyahu is not able to run, the Likud candidate likely will be current party chairman Ariel Sharon, who also leads Barak slightly in public opinion polls.
However, Sharon has several significant strikes against him. At 72, he is considered by many to be too old for the post. Controversial in the West and the Arab world, he is reviled by many Israelis for launching the 1982 Lebanon War, which sparked the 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.
A few other Likud politicians, such as Limor Livnat, Meir Sheetrit and Silvan Shalom, also are considering challenging Sharon to be the Likud candidate.
Barak’s resignation and the electoral parameters it set also prompted speculation that he had cut a secret deal with Sharon, agreeing that if they ran against each other, the winner would invite the loser to form a national unity government.
Sharon denied any kind of deal and said he was surprised by Barak’s decision.
“I want to state clearly: there was no coordination with Mr. Barak, no deal,” Sharon told a meeting of the Likud Knesset caucus. Reacting to Barak’s decision, he said earlier, “Barak apparently reached the conclusion that his government cannot continue to function in the grave security situation and political mess it created.”
Sharon said he would support allowing any citizen, including someone who is not a Knesset member, to run for prime minister.
Israeli commentators were split over whether Barak’s move was suicide or a stroke of political genius. Analysts alternately called it a necessary step in the current political reality, a pre-emptive move to set the best possible terms for re-election, or a Kamikaze act.
The move appeared to quash any remaining speculation that Barak would try to forge a deal with the Palestinians that he could then present as a referendum in elections.
Barak told the Cabinet Sunday that Israel was focusing on ways to reduce the violence, which claimed the lives of three more Israelis and at least seven Palestinians over the weekend.
Palestinians called Barak’s resignation an internal Israeli matter, but they said it further dampened any chances of reaching a political deal in the near future.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, said Barak’s resignation no doubt was precipitated by pressure on the Israeli leadership by the current Palestinian unrest. He also said that such precipitous elections meant an end to the peace process.
Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislature, said it was hard to believe that Israel and the Palestinians could possibly reach an agreement within 60 days.
Officials from Arafat’s Fatah movement said a Likud victory might be advantageous. Though a Likud leader would likely be far less generous than Barak in peace negotiations, he probably would take the international blame if the peace process collapsed.
If special elections are held for prime minister only, whoever wins is likely to encounter the same political deadlock that has characterized the Knesset for the past 18 months.
Barak’s hope is that a renewed mandate will make it possible for him to form a stable government on a strong parliamentary base.
However, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote in an editorial that whoever is elected prime minister could suffer again from a divided and conflicted Knesset.
Barak, in fact, won a huge majority in 1999, yet his government proved one of the most unstable in Israel’s history.