The Washington Post
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Barak stunned the nation Saturday night by announcing he will submit his resignation today so he can seek another term and a fresh mandate for his peace policies in a special election in February.
Trailing badly in the polls, Barak appeared to be taking advantage of a quirk in Israeli election law that may keep his vastly more popular right-wing rival, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, out of the race. Netanyahu quit politics last year, and the law restricts candidates in a special election for prime minister to current members of parliament.
"This maneuver has one and only one purpose, and that purpose is to bypass Bibi Netanyahu," said Emanuel Rosen, political analyst for Israel’s Channel 2 television.
Barak’s popularity among voters has plunged during a 10-week Palestinian uprising that shows no signs of abating, and he is under attack in his own Labor Party.
Barak would remain in office even after his resignation, which takes effect 48 hours after he submits it to Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Elections would then follow automatically in 60 days, on Feb. 10.
Even if his gambit works and Barak manages to defeat a weaker opponent such as the right-wing Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, he could return to office confronting the same overwhelming opposition he faces now in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. It was Sharon’s visit on Sept. 28 to the Noble Sanctuary, a Jerusalem shrine sacred to Muslims, that provoked the current violence in which more than 300 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed.
Looking haggard, his voice hoarse, Barak’s television appearance surprised his Cabinet and triggered an uproar in Israeli politics. Never before has an Israeli prime minister quit to seek a new mandate in a special election that might exclude his main rival.
Right-wing lawmakers immediately said they would try to undo what they considered Barak’s subterfuge by one of two scenarios. The Knesset could pass legislation that would permit "outsiders" such as Netanyahu to enter the race. As an alternative, it could vote to dissolve itself, thereby triggering new legislative elections in which Netanyahu would be eligible to run.