Walking the Tightrope

Prime Minister Ehud Barak has launched an election campaign amid violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

He hopes to conclude the campaign some time in the spring with renewed peace hopes, or, better yet, with a draft peace agreement that he can submit to the public as his election platform.

If Barak achieves a deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, he may yet pull back from the brink of political defeat and win the election.

If he fails — and the odds at this time have to be on his failure, given the Palestinians’ present and recent intransigence — it is hard to see Barak defeating the presumptive Likud candidate, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who currently leads Barak by 20 percentage points in public opinion polls.

After acceding Tuesday night to the Knesset majority’s obvious desire for early elections, Barak made it clear that vigorous diplomatic efforts would continue during the coming months of “lame-duck” government.

In a television interview, Barak bemoaned the Palestinian rejection of ideas put forward by Israel and the Americans at July’s Camp David summit and in subsequent diplomatic contacts.

But, he added, “it may not be over.”

Barak insisted that his diplomatic efforts would continue alongside the Israel Defense Force’s efforts to contain and reduce Palestinian violence.

Israeli military sources reported a sharp decline Tuesday in the number and intensity of violent incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If this reduction was orchestrated by Arafat and was intended to help Barak out of his parliamentary predicament, it plainly came too late.

But there is no doubt that the Palestinians are closely following Israel’s intricate political drama. And they will have to recognize the fact that their behavior — on the “war” front and in the peace talks — could directly and critically influence the outcome of Israel’s domestic contest.

This confluence of domestic and diplomatic circumstances could therefore become a catalyst, driving Israel and the Palestinian Authority toward a comprehensive or partial agreement before the election deadline draws near.

On the other hand, some skeptics contend that the Palestinians are not genuinely interested in a peace agreement and would prefer to face a harder-line Likud government that would take the international blame if peace talks founder.

In any case, events between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground could prove to have a negative and even dangerous impact in the election run-up.

Barak seemed aware of this danger in his televised interview, when he vowed that the army, under his direction, would not “play to the gallery” by overreacting to violent Palestinian provocations.

Too often, Barak said, Israeli governments pandering to the public’s natural urge for revenge have ordered the army to overreact to Arab violence, only to regret the harmful effects to Israel’s international standing and overall strategic strength.

As the election campaign moves forward, Barak will come under greater temptation to strike back ever harder after Palestinian acts of terror or violence because he cannot afford to be perceived by sections of the electorate as soft and hesitant.

For its part, the Likud will be tempted to criticize Barak for softness and hesitancy, and to demand ever harsher military measures.

The election probably will take place in May, but who will the candidates be?

Barak announced on Tuesday that he would run as the Labor candidate. He appeared to share the widespread assumption that Netanyahu will be back to head the Likud, noting that he had beaten Netanyahu before and would beat him again.

But Barak’s candidacy is not a foregone conclusion, however unconventional and messy it is for a party to dislodge a sitting prime minister and party leader.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, for one, certainly sees himself as prime ministerial material, and Israel Radio reported Tuesday night that the speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, would also contend for the Labor leadership.

In the Likud, chairman Ariel Sharon shows little willingness to vacate the party leadership for the more popular Netanyahu. This week, political wags were joking that Sharon might prefer to serve as Barak’s No. 2 rather than as Netanyahu’s.