Ariel Sharon holds such a commanding lead in the polls over incumbent Ehud Barak in Israel's prime ministerial contest that on Monday the liberal daily Ha'aretz led with a concession of defeat by "Barak's closest associates." According to the paper, Labor Party advisers are hoping for a "respectable" loss in the Tuesday election, one that will allow Barak to make a political return "after Sharon and his narrow government spoil every stew they cook up." There is also consensus that whoever wins will find it almost impossible to work with the divided Knesset. Maariv declared, "For two months now, two dreary politicians … have been squabbling over the right to crash in front of a hostile Knesset in four days." An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post predicted that Sharon's toughest problems will come from within his Likud Party: "He will have to fight all those that want to see him only as a caretaker prime minister for a few months, paving the way for new elections that will bring back [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu."
Over the weekend Sharon won the qualified endorsement of United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi religious party, by backpedaling on his position that Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) should be drafted into the army. The Jerusalem Post said that UTJ expects to receive Cabinet positions and Knesset committee chairmanships in exchange for its support. He also received the backing of Shas, the party of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews. The Financial Times suggested that with the Haredim solidly behind Sharon, Russian immigrants, who "loathe" the growing religious influence on secular issues, might be more motivated to vote for Barak. This weekend the prime minister wooed Russian immigrant voters and apologized for the deaths of 13 Arab-Israelis at the hands of Israeli police during the early days of the Al Aqsa intifada. In the 1999 election, Barak took 95 percent of the 1 million Arab-Israeli votes, but only 35 percent are expected to vote for him Tuesday. Arab-Israeli leaders, most of whom have called upon their supporters to either boycott the election or to cast blank ballots as a form of protest, said the apology, though welcome, came too late.
An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald presented Sharon as a cynical politician, who, in September, conscious that at 72 he "will never have another chance at Israel's highest political office," made the "calculated move" of visiting the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa mosque, thus setting off the intifada and shifting the Israeli electorate's priority from peace to security. In the current climate, the Toronto Sun claimed, Sharon "represents the certainty and security that many Israelis crave after the brief, chaotic rule of Barak and the failure of the Oslo peace accords."
In the Age of Melbourne, an Australian journalist who spent 25 years in Israel explained why he is hoping for a Sharon victory, even though he dislikes him, distrusts him, and believes him to be a war criminal: If Barak were to win, the deadlocked Knesset and the obduracy of Yasser Arafat would prevent any meaningful progress toward peace, and when the Knesset were finally dissolved, a general election would lead to "a massive swing to the right, the decimation of the left, and an effective end to any meaningful peace-making for the next four years."
A Sharon victory tomorrow, on the other hand, would present the Israeli people … with a chance to experience at first hand what life would be like under such a regime. … Sharon's rule is likely to be short (hopefully), brutish (almost certainly) and thoroughly nasty. But that is, perhaps, just the kind of wake-up call many Israelis need in order to put the peace process of the past seven years, with all its ups and downs, in its proper perspective.
In its endorsement of Barak, Ha'aretz said the prime minister "is not the optimal candidate. Far from it, his term in office proved that he is not blessed with sufficient political skills and that he suffers from personal shortcomings which limit his functioning." Nevertheless, the paper preferred Barak to the alternative:
Sharon has proved to be an irresponsible person … who does not speak the truth … who is unable to stop himself from diverting from instructions he is given, and who has the tendency to broadly interpret operational orders entrusted to him.
Israel's Yediot Aharonot called Barak delusional: "Barak became addicted to the illusion that it was not Netanyahu who lost the  election, but rather that he himself won it. Hubris, the curse of arrogance, seems to be preordained." The Financial Times pointed out that the prime minister was so focused on the peace process that he ignored his core constituencies: "The secular Russians were disappointed that Mr Barak brought Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party, into his coalition. Young secular Jews felt let down when Mr Barak refused to draft the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox men, into the army. Israeli Arabs saw nothing of his promises to end the discrimination and create equal opportunities for them." And a columnist in the Jerusalem Post suggested, "Barak's biggest mistake … was not seeing earlier that Arafat has become a lost cause, and then keeping his distance from him until after the ballot. … The sight of a loosed-lipped Arafat [at Davos] ranting on about the IDF's depleted-uranium weapons … was far better election propaganda for Sharon than anything the Likud has come up with."
Ocker power: In Australia, the newly formed Australians Against Wowsers Party has pledged to contest state elections on a platform of cheap beer, skimpy outfits for barmaids, and no speed limits on country roads. The Sunday Telegraph reported that "ockers"—Australian men "usually classified by … raw manners, a prodigious thirst and an unhealthy interest in bodily functions"—are fighting back against wowsers (killjoys) who are threatening their way of life. Creeping Americanism is also on the ocker enemies list; an AAW spokesman told the Telegraph, "We're against the creeping influence of septic tanks [yanks]. We want to call a biscuit a biscuit, not a cookie."
Translations from Hebrew-language papers courtesy of BBC Monitoring.