In a Gallup poll, taken immediately after the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced his decision to go to the country next spring, Amnon Shahak, who retired earlier this year as army chief of staff, was 11 per cent clear in a straight contest with Mr Netanyahu. The right-wing leader of Likud polled 37 per cent to 48 per cent for Mr Shahak.
The survey is bad news for the Labour opposition contender, Ehud Barak. He led Mr Netanyahu by only three points (44 to 41) in single combat. When voters were offered a choice of all three, 36 per cent backed Mr Netanyahu, 27 per cent Mr Barak and 25 per cent Mr Shahak. If that were the result in a three-way contest on polling day, the vote for prime minister would go to a second round with the third candidate eliminated.
Mr Shahak's main claim to the voters' affection is that he is neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Barak, two abrasive personalities whose arrogant, dictatorial ways have a habit of losing friends and alienating people.
By contrast, Mr Shahak, who fought in an elite commando unit alongside both his rivals, is genial and articulate with a reputation for quiet efficiency. Like Mr Barak, he is identified with the liberal left, but so far he has declined all invitations to join his old comrade and commander as number two on the Labour slate.
After years of marching one step behind Mr Barak, he wants to be his own man. Although he is still officially on demobilisation leave from the army, he opened a campaign office in Tel Aviv this week and is expected to resign his commission soon and announce his candidacy for prime minister at the head of a new centre party.
Leah Rabin, widow of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, is putting her weight behind efforts to bring Mr Shahak into the Barak camp. Both men were proteges, in the army and in their political aspirations, of the assassinated Labour premier. Mr Barak still hopes to win him over.
One of the Labour leader's senior aides said yesterday: "We are not going to plead with Shahak. He knows we'll be glad if he joins us. He knows if he does, he'll probably get the defence portfolio. He has said he is only going into politics to get rid of Netanyahu. Our message to him is that the only way to do that is to fight together, not to fight each other."
Mr Netanyahu was elected in 1996 on a platform at odds with the land- for-peace formula that Labour endorsed in its landmark 1993 Oslo accord with the Palestinians. He has seen his coalition crumble since October when he signed the Wye Agreement which included a deal on withdrawing from part of the Occupied Territories.Reuse content