Israel may be small country, but it has about the most complex election rules of any democracy in the world. Prime Minister Ehud Barak's surprising move on Saturday, resigning his position and calling for snap elections, makes sense only when seen

Israel may be small country, but it has about the most complex election rules of any democracy in the world. Prime Minister Ehud Barak's surprising move on Saturday, resigning his position and calling for snap elections, makes sense only when seen against the backdrop of those rules.

His decision resulted from two key developments: Barak had lost his majority in parliament some months ago and was in the process of calling elections there to take place in May; polls, however, showed his party doing badly, losing a number of seats. Worse yet from his perspective, polls showed him getting clobbered by double digits to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but only by a few percentage points to Ariel Sharon, the Likud's current leader.

Israel's election laws would have allowed Netanyahu, now a private citizen, a shot at Barak if full parliamentary elections were held. But by suddenly resigning the prime ministership and not disbanding parliament, Barak took advantage of a quirk in the law that permits only sitting members of parliament to run against him--thereby excluding Netanyahu as his opponent and most likely going head-to-head with Sharon.

In addition, by resigning, Barak moved the elections forward from May to February, thereby reducing a chance of an intraparty rival emerging.

Beyond this intense jockeying for partisan advantage, the question arises: Just how much will these elections matter?

There is a widespread sense that the future of Israeli-Arab relations depend on them.

It will certainly be a lively election, complete with high passions, powerful personalities and vehement denunciations of rival candidates. Yet from a larger perspective, it is not clear the election will have all that much importance.

Voters will likely not have a real choice about the paramount issue: the way their government approaches the Palestinians. To understand why requires taking a step back and looking at the larger picture: Israelis have three fundamental choices vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

The "forget it" approach holds that the territories Israel won in 1967 are part of the Jewish patrimony and must remain forever under Israeli control, so there is no point in negotiating their future. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir embodied this approach, and its recent spokesman has been Ze'ev Binyamin Begin. It has virtually disappeared from the scene.

The two other approaches both approve of negotiations but differ in what they expect in return. The traditional Likud "yes but" attitude, now held by less than a quarter of Israelis, demands a change of heart from the Arabs in return for giving them land. Negotiations are fine in principle; they must, however, result in a clear payoff for Israel. Arabs must prove their permanent intention to forgo violence before they get a reward.

Then there is the "be my guest" approach, which has been overwhelmingly the most popular since about 1993. It requires almost no change by the Arabs, giving them land and other benefits in the hope that such generosity will in itself create an environment conducive to their accepting Israel's existence.

If "yes but" involves a finely calibrated accounting of what Israel gains from its concessions, "be my guest" is a much vaguer process that cheerfully assumes Israeli concessions will on their own win Palestinian cooperation and goodwill.

While "be my guest" is closely identified with such Labor leaders as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Barak, it has no less been implemented by Likud. When Likud was last in power, in 1996-99 under Netanyahu's leadership, it signed two "be my guest" agreements with the Palestinians, getting virtually nothing in return.

Thus, both of Israel's leading parties, Labor and Likud, have pursued basically the same set of policies in recent years. True, Likud did so more slowly and reluctantly than Labor, but that is more a matter of style than of substance.

This similarity appears still to be the case, even after the Palestinian campaign of violence of the past 10 weeks. Barak has said tough things about Yasser Arafat but has by no means given up on continuing the negotiations with him. At the moment, his stated policy is to demand a "drastic" drop in violence before returning to the bargaining table.

The Likud leader, Sharon, demands only slightly more--a "full cessation" of hostilities--before he likewise would restart the diplomacy.

This is a distinction without a difference. As Barak correctly noted in his resignation speech, "The right does not have any alternative security or political plan."

This nearly wall-to-wall agreement to continue with "be my guest" diplomacy reflects a deeper fact: Polls show that a sizable majority of Israelis want to keep trying this form of negotiations with the Palestinians.

What to look for, therefore, in the elections in February? If Likud offers the voters a real alternative to the "be my guest" policy prevailing since 1993, then the vote for prime minister will make a real difference. If Likud merely continues to echo Labor, the elections will involve colorful personalities and high passions, but no real policy choice.