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Barak, Netanyahu Open Re-Election Campaigns

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to the political stage as the right-wing hero who says he can beat Ehud Barak in an election set for February.

The man nicknamed “Bibi,” trounced by Barak in 1999 elections, celebrated his comeback at an opposition Likud party meeting to plan procedures for a primary vote next week to pick a candidate to challenge Barak, who resigned on Sunday, for the prime ministership.

“You don’t know how happy I am to be with you tonight,” a confident-looking Netanyahu told a cheering crowd. “I missed you.”

The meeting marked the first time current Likud leader Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, who wants to unseat him, have shared a stage since Barak quit and forced an election within 60 days.

Netanyahu, 51, who gave up his parliamentary seat and took a break from politics after his 1999 defeat, has accused Barak of bringing Israel to the brink of war. Opinion polls put him far ahead of the Labour Party leader.

But even if he upsets Sharon in party primaries on Dec. 18, Netanyahu will have to overcome a major technical problem. Under Israeli law, only members of parliament can stand for prime minister in the type of special election forced by Barak’s resignation.

To challenge Barak, Netanyahu needs the Knesset to dissolve itself and call a parliamentary election. “There have to be general elections — for the Knesset and for prime minister,” Netanyahu said. “The reason is simple: in its current configuration, the Knesset is paralysed — you cannot rule with a Knesset like this,” he said.

Sharon issued his own appeal, adding that he would run for prime minister and try to form a national unity government bringing in Netanhayu — and Barak — if he won.

Heading a minority government, Barak resigned in the face of an 11-week Palestinian uprising which underlined his failure to forge the peace he promised voters in the election campaign last year. At least 313 people, mainly Palestinians, have died in the violence.

Barak kicked off his reelection campaign today by casting his bid for a renewed mandate as a vote for peace. Analysts have said an agreement with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is his only real chance to regain widespread support. He will remain caretaker prime minister until after an election in 60 days, or 90 days if parliament dissolves.

But the violence that has shifted the Israeli electorate to the right continued. In the West Bank, Arafat’s Fatah faction said Israeli security forces had assassinated one of its field commanders. The Israeli army declined to comment.

Fatah, which has led the revolt against Israeli occupation, said Yousef Ahmed Abu Sway, 28, was killed in front of his home in the village of Khader, south of Bethlehem. He is the fourth Fatah field leader to be gunned down since the uprising began. Fatah officials vowed to avenge the killing — Palestinian hospital officials said Sway was hit by 17 high-calibre bullets — by targeting soldiers and Jewish settlers on occupied land.

In the Gaza Strip Jewish settlement of Morag, two Israeli motorists were wounded, one of them seriously, by Palestinian gunmen. Another Jewish motorist was lightly wounded in the Jordan Valley. Israeli police said automatic weapon gunfire struck the Jewish settlement of Gilo on the outskirts of Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The army said it returned fire.

“The coming elections … will be the real referendum on the path to peace and security, to ending wars and separating from the Palestinians,” Barak said on the campaign trail, wearing his trademark closed-mouth smile on a visit to a high school.

Meanwhile, Arafat met today with U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who is heading an inquiry into the 10-week uprising. Palestinian leaders said Arafat gave Mitchell a 42-page report on “the political and factual context in which the uprising is taking place.”

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