Sharon win underscores Israelis' insecurity

Likud leader now faces the tricky task of creating a coalition from rival parties.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's resounding election victory Tuesday reshaped Israel's political map. It also handed Mr. Sharon a strong mandate to continue his hard-edged approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Sharon's triumph almost doubled his party's seats. By contrast, the Labor party, closely associated with the peace process, suffered its worst defeat ever, prompting speculation about its future. Benefiting from Labor's slide, a secular party named Shinui has emerged as a potent new political force.

Sharon's first challenge is to create a coalition government within the next 28 days, a period that will see frantic horse-trading as parties vie for a slice of power. In this process, as in the election, Sharon may get a helping hand from beyond his borders.

"The next war in the Gulf was very present in the consciousness of the voters," says Joseph Alpher, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "People made the decision that they wanted to stick with a steady old war horse to guide the state through rocky seas, someone who's a good friend of President [Bush]."

With the threat of a regional war looming, Mr. Alpher notes that it will be easier for Sharon to apply pressure - particularly on Labor, which has said it will not join a Likud-led unity government - to help him build the coalition he wants.

It was a note Sharon sounded in his victory speech to jubilant supporters. "This is not a time for celebration," he said grimly. "This is a time for unity." That was a theme the prime minister repeatedly stressed as he positioned himself and the Likud in the political center, a canny move that boosted the party's presence in the 120-seat Knesset from 19 to 37 by pulling voters away from both the left and right.

His call for unity holds great appeal for Israelis worn out by their local conflict and skittish about a regional one.

They cast their ballots on a chilly, uneventful day, with a record low turnout of 68.5 percent. As part of its security measures, the army sealed off the Palestinian territories. Last-minute security warnings in the newspapers told voters not to bring bags or packages to polling stations.

The warnings were a fitting, 11th-hour reminder that the election's central issue remained security, despite a tattered economy and rising unemployment. During his first campaign, Sharon said he would bring "peace and security."

This time around, Sharon simply stressed the security. And whatever the reality, "people want a strong leader and Sharon fits that image," says Alpher.

The security issue cut the other way for the Labor party, which slid from 26 to 19 seats. For the first time since its predecessor was founded in 1930, Labor is no longer a major political force.

The party was undermined by its close association with the discredited Oslo peace process; leader Amram Mitzna's declaration that he would negotiate with the Palestinians; and, depending on who is asked, either Mr. Mitzna's refusal to join another unity government or the party's decision to join Sharon's first one.

"Labor threw everything away when they joined Sharon," says Ilan, a student who campaigned for a left-wing party. "There was no difference between them and Likud."

Some commentators say Labor's dismal performance could mean the party's end. But Mark Heller, a senior researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says he's skeptical.

"There's a pattern of major parties going through very hard times then rehabilitating themselves," says Mr. Heller, who notes that during the Labor-driven Oslo process, people said the same things about Likud. "It usually takes some time in the opposition, but eventually they'll come back."

Labor leader Mitzna seems to see his campaign in the longterm, telling voters that he is "running a marathon."

For the time being, he has been left in the dust by a new political power. Shinui, a secular party whose name means "change," won 15 seats, up from six, to become Israel's new political kingmaker.

The party captured a large part of the middle-class vote by urging a more equitable balance between the contributions that religious and secular Israelis make to the state and the benefits they receive.

Shinui is seen as antireligious and, during the campaign, announced it would not join a coalition with religious parties.

Victory has changed things, with leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid telling the media that if an emergency government is set up during wartime, he will sit with ultra-orthodox parties. This is precisely the sort of shift that Sharon will be looking for as war clouds gather.

Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, warns that Sharon will find that "translating this victory into a coalition won't be easy."

All of Sharon's coalition options come with a hefty price tag, either a demand that he turn his back on an ally or that he alienate a friend. Sharon badly wants to create another unity government with Labor.

He may succeed if Mitzna is ousted as leader or if the Labor leader agrees to join a wartime government. But winning Labor over would come at a cost, as the party would demand that settlements be evacuated. Such a move would be difficult for Sharon.

And outside wartime, Shinui, another potential partner, would demand that Sharon turn his back on religious parties who have been his traditional backers.

A third option for Sharon, one he does not favor, is to create a narrow right-wing government with parties who would not accept compromise on the issue of a Palestinian state.

Such a right-wing coalition could threaten Israel's request for $12 billion in emergency aid from the US since Sharon has already committed to the US-backed "roadmap" for creation of a state for Palestinians by 2005.

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