On Feb. 6, Israeli voters will choose a new prime minister. The special election was set in December, when Ehud Barak suddenly resigned in the face of a protracted Palestinian uprising and declining popular support. Just 18 months into his four-year term, Barak announced he would run again for his seat.
Many expected he would face Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party prime minister Barak had unseated in 1999.
But Israeli law requires that candidates in special elections be active members of parliament. Since Netanyahu left the Knesset in 1999, he was ineligible to run. Several members of parliament organized to change the law to allow Netanyahu to enter the race, but he quietly declined their offer.
That left Barak to face Ariel Sharon, a hard-line right winger and former prime minister at the head of the Likud Party who holds a strong lead over Barak in the polls. In fact, some people had suggested that Barak pull out of the race, and cede the Labor Party candidacy to former prime minister Shimon Peres, whom polls suggested had a better chance at beating Sharon. But Barak let the Feb. 2 deadline for withdrawing pass without dropping out.
The central political issue shaping the election is relations with the Palestinians, badly damaged by a protracted clash that has claimed more than 370 lives in the past four months. A Sharon victory could mean a virtual end to peace negotiations. Sharon says he will make no territorial or political concessions to the Palestinians, especially over control of Jerusalem. Sharon has said that should he win, he would not honor any peace agreement made before the election.
Barak, more committed to negotiation and compromise with the Palestinian authority, is expected to resume negotiations should he win the election. Just a week before the vote, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators released a joint statement saying they were "closer than ever" to a deal.