Deep splits face Israel's new leader

Sharon's toughest job will be to unite a divided populace and skeptical neighbors.

For Ariel Sharon, the easy part is over.

The Likud Party leader sailed to victory in Tuesday's election for prime minister, buoyed throughout his campaign by leads of 20 percent over the incumbent Ehud Barak. But if Mr. Sharon has any political honeymoon at all, it will be brief.

He faces a series of challenges from without and within. Palestinian groups, calling Sharon's political platform a declaration of war, have pledged to increase acts of violence unless he agrees to their demands. Within the region, the hard-line army veteran will have to contend with wary neighbors who suspect he's itching for a fight.

But the first hurdle - one that could topple him and ultimately force general elections - will be marshalling Israel's squabbling parliamentary cliques into a coalition that actually enables him to lead.

"The real problem will be coalition building.... It will be difficult. [In just a] few months, we could have an interim crisis that could spark general elections," says Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Voters had a sunny, cool day to make their choice. Both candidates stationed activists at polling booths in an 11th-hour drive to ensure Israelis cast their ballots. Mr. Barak hoped for a last-minute voting surge, particularly among the disaffected Israeli-Arab community that backed him in 1999. Sharon backers worried that some of his supporters, lulled into complacency by his commanding lead, might not bother to vote.

As of press time, turnout on the national holiday was much lower than normal. To ensure security, Israel called out 15,000 soldiers, policemen, and guards and sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel.

The Fatah group, founded by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1959 to fight Israeli occupation, declared yesterday a "day of rage" and announced the intifada would continue.

After one of their men was shot Sunday trying to enter Israel with over 30 pounds of explosives, Islamic Jihad released a statement vowing to "carry out powerful blows against [Israel] ... within the next few days."

Within Fatah, violence is seen as a means to force Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands. More hard-line groups use it in an attempt to derail the peace process altogether. Mr. Arafat's spokesmen, sounding a more moderate note, say they'll take a wait-and-see attitude about Sharon.

But heightened tensions seem highly likely. In a campaign dominated by voter concerns about personal safety, Sharon promised peace with security - a catchphrase for a tougher approach to violence. He also announced that he won't negotiate while shots are being fired.

When Sharon does resume talks with the Palestinian leadership, they will find his vision of peace starkly different than Barak's. Sharon's predecessor insisted that a final agreement with the Palestinians was key to ensuring Israel's safety, and made Palestinians an offer many Israelis considered too generous.

While Palestinians are pushing for even more than Barak was willing to offer, Sharon has made it clear he would offer far less. As the chief architect of Israel's settlement policy and the owner of a home in the Old City's Muslim Quarter, he is a committed Zionist. His advisers have signaled that he prefers a long-term interim agreement: basically a return to the status quo.

"If anything, he'll say he wants peace and quiet so we can have 'normalcy,' " says Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "That means Palestinians working in Israel and Israelis shopping in [Palestinian] territories, the pattern during the previous Likud government. The wrench in that works is that it only takes one bad event to blow things up again."

That instability is of concern to Israel's neighbors, especially Jordan, home to more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees. Sharon's victory almost ensures the continuation of the intifada, which has had a destabilizing effect on many Arab countries, but especially those with Palestinian refugees.

Jordan's leaders particularly dislike Sharon for advocating the "Jordanian option," in which he called for turning the Hashemite Kingdom into a Palestinian state. And all Arab countries greatly distrust Sharon's penchant for military swashbuckling.

Indeed, polls show that even Israelis worry he will lead them into war. If Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier, Sharon just might be its most controversial. In nearly 50 years of military and political life, Sharon has developed a reputation for exceeding orders, an inability to cooperate, and a fighting style that often resulted in high civilian casualties.

If those qualities do not bode well for his relations with the Arab world, they are going to pose equal difficulties at home. To be effective, even to survive, Sharon has to cooperate with others, and quickly. Israeli law stipulates that he must pass a national budget by March 31. To do that, he will have to form a government by the end of February at the latest. Failure to pass the budget means the dissolution of parliament and general elections.

Sharon has repeatedly said he would like to form a national unity government with Barak's Labor Party, but many commentators say that's unlikely. The only other option is to band together with an assortment of small parties on the far right. Barak tried and failed to work with such a partnership, and even more-conservative politicians haven't been able to make it succeed.

A right-wing coalition led by a notoriously right-wing leader will only heighten regional tensions.

"If Sharon is unable to build a coalition [with Labor], he'll be a hostage of the far right," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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