A drawn-out, personality contest for the right to be Israel's next prime minister ended in dramatic fashion when Labor leader Ehud Barak won a sweeping victory over incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu in the first round of voting on May 17th. Barak is a military hero and relative newcomer to politics who claims the mantle of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. His sooner-than-expected win was fueled by the eleventh-hour withdrawals of the three trailing candidates in the race, and reflected a no-confidence vote in Netanyahu as much as an endorsement of Barak, according to political analysts.
Thirty minutes after polls closed, a humbled Netanyahu faced Likud faithful to squarely shoulder blame for the 13-point loss, announcing he was vacating the top post in his reeling party. The stunning, but honorable move was a defining moment at the end of an opposition campaign aimed simply at "getting Bibi."
Separate balloting for political parties saw equally dramatic changes in the make-up of the 15th Knesset, with new and smaller parties registering big gains at the expense of the two large parties, Labor and Likud, as expected under the new electoral system.
Polls showed Barak's lead widening over Netanyahu in recent weeks, but falling short of the 50% needed to avoid a second round runoff on June 1. Netanyahu insisted the pollsters were wrong again -- just as in 1996 when Labor's Shimon Peres led by 6% on election eve. But the Likud leader knew momentum was with Barak and the extra two weeks of a runoff were needed to turn things around.
As pressure mounted going into the last weekend, Arab candidate Azmi Bishara was the first to exit, concluding by Saturday evening that he had already gained new legitimacy for Israeli Arab causes and his withdrawal could help Barak win on the first ballot. Labor officials denied Bishara's assertion he received "promises" from the Barak camp in return. An estimated 70% of his backers (2.5% in a five-man race) shifted to Barak, while the remainder abstained- reflecting lackluster pro-Barak sentiments among the Arabs.
Next came the Center party's Yitzhak Mordechai, announcing on Sunday afternoon that he, too, was deferring to Barak. After a weekend of "soul-searching," Netanyahu's former defense minister said: "As a thinking, responsible person .. who is concerned solely for the good of the country, I have had to conclude that this time I should withdraw my candidacy... One of the key goals is to replace the current prime minister." Mordechai strongly denied having reached any deal with Labor for his withdrawal and endorsement.
Hours later, National Unity leader Benny Begin abandoned the contest to the two frontrunners, and the setbacks for Netanyahu were complete. Begin, who left Likud to head a right-wing coalition, did not endorse Netanyahu, merely saying his supporters had a "deep political understanding" and would know what to do.
Netanyahu's last-minute warnings of a "leftist" takeover and calls for Likud defectors to "come home" were in vain, as Barak eased to a larger victory than forecasted. Commentators agreed Mordechai's withdrawal - not entirely unexpected despite his repeated denials - was the most severe blow to Netanyahu, robbing him of the opportunity to fight a second round.
Early analysis of the results also indicates a major shift away from Netanyahu by new Russian immigrants. The majority of Russians voted Labor in 1992, and then backed Netanyahu in 1996. The apparent swing back may be linked to their unhappiness with Shas control over the Interior Ministry in Netanyahu's government. Many newcomers from former Soviet states resent the hurdles imposed by religious elements at Interior when immigrating to Israel.
Barak struck both conciliatory and hawkish tones in declaring victory. "From now on... we are all one nation," he said, reciting the same psalm which Netanyahu quoted in his 1996 victory speech: "The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace."
Barak restated his "red lines" in talks with Palestinians: Jerusalem would remain Israel's undivided capital; no return to the pre-1967 borders; no "Arab army" west of the Jordan River; and "most" Jewish settlements would remain under Israeli sovereignty. Notably absent was any reference to Palestinian statehood. Barak repeated his campaign promise to withdraw from south Lebanon within a year.
In conceding defeat, Netanyahu told Likud colleagues that, although he still had much to contribute to the state, he needed a break. The likely contenders for Likud leadership are outgoing cabinet ministers Ariel Sharon, Meir Shetreet and Limor Livnat, and Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert.
Barak's triumph was greeted warmly by world leaders, who expect him to rapidly comply with demands for territorial concessions under the Oslo and Wye agreements.
Barak, 57, has a short, unimpressive political career (interior minister under Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister under Shimon Peres) from which to judge his direction and prospects for success. During the ill-tempered campaign, crucial issues took a back seat, with the collusion of much of the local media. His gameplan, guided by U.S. consultants James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, made much of the former army chief's enviable military record. But Barak remained deliberately vague on his strategic and economic positions. Netanyahu tried to concentrate on questions of security, where he could boast of the extreme reduction in terrorism. But an array of forces ensured the focus remained "getting rid of Bibi." As a result, little is known about Barak's plans and policies.
Although best known as a highly-decorated soldier, Barak has a master's degree in systems analysis from Stanford, is a classical pianist and an expert in Hebrew literature. He is considered intelligent, individualistic, and sometimes impulsive.
When the untested Barak looks to the new Knesset for possible coalition partners, there are many changes. His Labor/One Israel list fell to 27 seats, while Likud grabbed just 19. Both Shas (17 seats) and the Shinui party, revitalized with 6 mandates via the anti-hardei rhetoric of TV journalist Tommy Lapid, profited from their roles as lightning rods in the kulturkampf between religious and secular Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox parties now compromise an unprecedented 15% of the Knesset, but some may have alienated the center/left enough to prevent their inclusion in a Barak government.
On the right, the National Religious Party was reduced to five seats, while Begin's National Unity list won a disappointing 3 mandates. United Torah Judaism received 5 seats and Balad 2 seats. The new Center Party also fell short of expectations with 6 seats. Nathan Sharansky's Yisrael B'Aliyah finished with 7, while Russian rival Yisrael Beiteinu tallied 4 seats. On the left, Meretz captured 9 mandates, while the three Arab parties totaled 10 seats.
Barak has vowed to include only those coalition partners who accept his core guidelines for future peace talks. Among the options, he could enlist a left-leaning government including Meretz, the Arab parties, and Shinui at the core, leaving out religious and Zionist parties. He could settle on a center-left coalition including Yisrael B'Aliyah, the Center party, and perhaps Shas (unacceptable to Shinui and Meretz). Or, with rival Netanyahu no longer at the helm, he could push for a national unity coalition with Likud and the mainstream center, ensuring a fairly broad consensus when it comes to making critical decisions in "final status" talks with the Palestinians.