Earlier this week, a Supreme Court judge provoked outrage from politicians when he suggested a postponement in the election process to allow a fair vote to take place. But this was Jerusalem not Tallahassee, and the office in question was the premiership of Israel rather than the presidency of the United States. The judge proposed that the election now scheduled for Feb. 6, 2001, be delayed until March to allow the Central Elections Committee more time to prepare, but both leading parties reacted harshly, leading him to withdraw the request. Opposition Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon wanted to keep the fast-track timetable to limit rival Benjamin Netanyahu's options; Prime Minister Ehud Barak wanted to give his colleague and potential challenger Shimon Peres as little time as possible to launch a candidacy. When Netanyahu withdrew from the race Tuesday, it looked as if both Sharon and Barak had achieved their aims and were destined to face off. That changed when Peres admitted that he was seeking the backing of the leftist Meretz Party, which could provide the support of the 10 Knesset members he needs to mount a challenge. Meretz has until midnight Thursday Israeli Time (2 p.m. PT) to decide.
A poll commissioned by Yediot Aharonot and reported in the Jerusalem Post showed Peres winning a three-way contest and Sharon outpolling Barak in a two-man race. Nevertheless, the prospect of a split on the left sent the Israeli press into outrage overdrive. An analysis in the liberal Ha'aretz declared Peres, "the well-known loser," to be "intoxicated" by the poll numbers. Referring to Peres' record of five lost elections (his two terms as prime minister came in 1984's national unity government and in 1995 when he took over after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin), it scoffed, "True, Peres has the most experience in the government, but he has just one little problem: he doesn't know how to win." An editorial in the same paper counseled Peres against running:
[I]t would be better if he helped … by becoming completely and constructively involved in Barak's team. This is not the time to return to his ambition … of leading the country. Certainly not by undermining Barak's position from within.
His contribution and his glory do not lie in another campaign.
Despite his poor poll numbers, Barak received a significant endorsement in the pages of Ha'aretz by novelists A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz. They concluded:
The correct thing to do is to support Barak as the candidate of the peace camp for prime minister, on condition that he share the labor of peacemaking with other public figures whose intelligence and vision are no less impressive than his own, and whose experience in negotiating with the Palestinians and managing affairs of state would complement that which is lacking in him. … Putting up another candidate is liable to divide the camp, sow confusion among peace activists and detract from the sense of resolve that will be so critical in the upcoming election campaign.
Ha'aretz reported that Ariel Sharon is popular among Russian immigrants to Israel. Whereas Sharon's role in the massacre of more than 2,000 Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in the 1982 Lebanese War is universally condemned, "The coverage of the disaster in the Soviet press was especially hostile to Israel, and everything that was presented as hostile in the Soviet media is still perceived by Russian immigrants as a point in Israel's favor." That same rejection of anti-Soviet values leads to 72-year-old Sharon's biggest problem for the Russians: his age, which triggers memories of the Soviet-era gerontocracy. At 77 Peres has the same shortcoming, but he "has the additional difficulty of being perceived as belonging too much to the Jewish 'galut' (Diaspora), of being identified as communist, and of being too intellectual to be a strong prime minister." Despite his relative youth at 58, Barak is "failing miserably" among immigrants.
What's that golfer's handicap? Spain's third-place finish in the medal standings at this year's Paralympic Games (the international competition for disabled athletes) revived the nation's sporting pride after a dismal performance in the Olympics. The shine was dulled somewhat when a five-gold-medal-winning swimmer was revealed to be a convicted terrorist who became disabled as a result of a hunger strike while imprisoned for murder (see this November "International Papers" column). Now El País has revealed that 14 of the 200 Spanish participants in the games faked their handicaps. Ten of the 12-member team that took gold in the "intellectual disability" basketball competition were acting, according to Jesús Ribagorda, a journalist who was on the team and revealed the fraud in the magazine Capital. Not only has the scandal resulted in the return of medals but also the investigation exposed "financial irregularities" in the distribution of sports scholarships by the Federation for the Intellectually Handicapped.
For their ears only: On Dec. 20 Russia celebrates Den chekista, a Stalin-era celebration of the secret police. Writing in the Moscow Times, a former KGB lieutenant colonel claimed: "Russia is once again on the path toward establishing a totalitarian state. Instead of communism, a sort of nationalism is fast becoming the ideology of this new structure, which is waging open warfare against civil society." The same paper disclosed that Russia's secret policemen marked their 80th anniversary Wednesday by compiling a CD of songs honoring their profession. Selections include such favorites as "Completing a Task" and "Here Goes Your Friend off on a Mission." Unfortunately, you can't buy a copy for the spy who loves you; distribution is strictly limited to intelligence service veterans on a need-to-hear basis.