Why can’t Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak make up his mind? Just 10 days ago he called a general election, which was expected to take place in May. On Saturday, he announced his resignation, which triggers a special election for the prime ministership to be held in 60 days. Israeli election rules allow only members of the Knesset to run in special elections, which effectively prevents former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from running. (Click here for a summary of the rules, courtesy of the Jerusalem Post.) Nevertheless, Netanyahu announced his candidacy, which will be possible if a) the Knesset changes the electoral law to allow non-members to run; or b) the Knesset dissolves itself, causing a general election as well as a leadership vote.
Most papers agreed that Barak’s flip-flop was designed to avoid a contest with Netanyahu, whose political rehabilitation has been confirmed in recent weeks and who is currently favored by 45 percent of voters, compared with 27 percent for the prime minister, according to a poll in the Hebrew newspaper Ma’ariv. By contrast, current Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon outpolls Barak by only three to five percentage points. The liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted that Netanyahu knew the rules when he left parliament after his 1999 defeat:
When, after the drubbing he suffered in the last elections, Netanyahu decided to resign from the Knesset and turn to other, private pursuits rather than standing atop the opposition, he had a full understanding of the language of the law, and of the legitimate options retained by the prime minister.
Barak claims he wanted to avoid a general election given Israel’s fragile security situation. Asked what purpose re-election would serve if the Knesset was still fragmented and gridlocked, the prime minister told the Jerusalem Post, “This will send a strong signal to the Knesset regarding the will of the people.” An op-ed in Ha’aretz scorned the prime minister’s answer: Without Knesset elections, “[a] new coalition would be possible only if there is a tacit agreement between [Barak] and Sharon on setting up a national unity government after the race. This is not inconceivable, but any such plan must also take into account Netanyahu’s potential ability to torpedo such a move through his control of the Likud faction—a control he has amply demonstrated over the last few weeks.”
An analysis in the Sydney Morning Herald claimed Barak “put his own political survival above the national interest. The step he took in resigning was both completely logical and at the same time politically ruthless. … [A]s a former commando he … knows it is best to try to take your enemies by surprise and not to fight them on their terms.” (Sunday’s Jerusalem Post editorial declared, “His latest feint … looks more like that of a kamikaze than a commando.”) Another piece in the Jerusalem Post agreed that Barak’s motive was self-preservation: He “not only chose the less threatening opponent from his point of view, but he reduced the likelihood that he would be challenged within his own party, while his Likud rival would arrive at the starting line weakened, because there will be an internal battle inside the Likud.” (The possibility of a leadership challenge from within Barak’s Labor Party seems small after the party re-elected him as its leader Sunday. However, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who has publicly criticized Barak in recent weeks, did not attend the re-election vote, causing speculation that he might run.)
A news story in Ha’aretz pointed out that, apart from questions about the electability of a Likud leader as hawkish as Ariel Sharon, a 1983 state commission of inquiry into Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which he masterminded, deemed him unfit ever to serve as the nation’s defense minister.” The paper concluded, “His candidacy for prime minister could well prompt legal challenges on whether a man officially castigated as unfit to be defense minister could be fit to serve as prime minister.”
The politics of Russian pardons: The English-language Moscow Times seized upon the trial and conviction of U.S. businessman Edmond Pope to assail the Russian justice system. In an editorial Thursday, the paper said Pope’s 20-year sentence for buying blueprints for a Soviet-era high-speed torpedo was “perhaps the inevitable outcome of a judicial process that was nothing short of a travesty.” It continued, “We do not know whether Pope is guilty or not of violating any laws, but we are certain that his guilt was not established during his trial.” In the closed trial, Pope was forced to use a state-provided translator, whom he claimed not to understand; the court “refused to consider evidence that the supposedly secret materials that Pope sought to purchase had been previously published in textbooks and had been approved for release by the authorities”; the charges against him were “based on secret decrees regulating the control of sensitive information that were never released to the defense”; and the key witness “recanted his accusations on the stand and swore that prosecutors had bullied him into testifying against Pope.”
According to the Moscow Times, the Russian dailies Kommersant and Segodnya speculated that Pope would be exchanged for Aldrich Ames, a former CIA employee who provided the names of U.S. agents to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In fact, it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will accept the recommendation of his clemency board and pardon Pope. The pardon commission’s chairman emphasized, “We do not judge or discuss the court’s decision, but instead base our actions on the laws of charity and humanity.” The Times declared the pardons system “a poor substitute for a working system of justice. In fact, the practice of pardoning people who are abused by the justice system—both law enforcement agencies and the courts—makes a mockery of the rule of law and even facilitates further abuses of the system.” The paper encouraged Putin to “emphasize that he is not being magnanimous. … Instead, he must make it clear that he is using the most expedient method of justly treating a man who has thus far been denied justice by the prosecutors and the courts.”
Autumn of the patriarch: Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez broke a self-imposed silence for an interview with the Colombian paper El Tiempo. He confirmed that more than a year ago he received three months of treatment against lymphoma but claimed he is no longer on medication. He has finished the first of three planned volumes of memoirs and is working on two collections of short stories that were in progress before his diagnosis. The first memoir, due to appear in 2001, will open with the life of his grandparents and conclude in 1955; the second will cover his life until the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude; and the final volume will be a collection of remembrances of his personal relationships with “six or seven presidents of various countries.”