Shortchanging Democracy in Israel

December 11, 2000

Ehud Barak's surprise resignation as Israel's prime minister is a regrettable tactical ploy designed to improve his chances for re-election early next year. Unfortunately it is also likely to deprive Israeli voters of the chance to choose between Mr. Barak and his most formidable opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister. That would be shortsighted and harmful to the peace process. Mr. Barak must realize that his own courageous efforts to make peace will be jeopardized unless he gains maximum public support in an open election, not an election designed to hobble the opposition.

With deadly clashes continuing between Israelis and Palestinians, there is merit in accelerating Israel's election timetable, as Mr. Barak's resignation will do. Voting will now take place in February instead of May. But the political calendar could have been compressed without shutting Mr. Netanyahu and other potential candidates out of the race. Israel's Parliament should remedy this wrong by amending the restrictive law or by dissolving itself, forcing simultaneous new parliamentary elections. Under current law, only members of Parliament are able to run for prime minister in this special election. Mr. Netanyahu gave up his parliamentary seat in 1999.

If it doesn't change the law, Parliament has the option of speeding its own schedule for new parliamentary elections, so that these can be held at the same time as the vote for prime minister. Parliament's legal adviser ruled yesterday that in that case, Mr. Netanyahu would be allowed to run in the prime minister's race. Without a change in the law or a dissolution of Parliament, the Likud Party's current leader, Ariel Sharon, a bellicose right-wing ideologue, will almost surely be Mr. Barak's opponent.

Whatever the election matchup, the voting will largely be a referendum on the conduct of peace talks with the Palestinians. Most Israelis still believe in a negotiated peace, but there is uneasiness over Mr. Barak's management of the bargaining, particularly since the Camp David peace talks collapsed and the current Palestinian revolt broke out. That could change if there is an early return to bargaining by the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, followed by rapid progress on remaining issues. Such progress could validate the strenuous peace efforts of Mr. Barak and assure him a deserved victory. But if Mr. Arafat chooses not to make peace with Mr. Barak now, Israeli voters deserve a clear choice of who will lead them — and in what direction — through the difficulties ahead.

©2000 New York Times

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