Israelis have elected a new prime minister. Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon has trounced Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a historic vote. The results cap a stunning comeback for Mr. Sharon, who was written out of Israeli politics after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon which he masterminded. The results also mark an equally remarkable reversal in the prospects for the region. Few figures are as incendiary — as hated — as Mr. Sharon among the Arabs and Palestinians. A peace agreement is not impossible, but the dynamics and the personalities have changed.

Mr. Sharon won by a landslide. He took 62.6 percent of the vote, nearly twice Mr. Barak’s 37.3 percent. The victory was not unvarnished, however. Turnout was 62 percent, a record low, and a sharp fall from that of the May 1999 election that brought Mr. Barak to power. Israeli Arabs, who make up 12 percent of the population and had supported Mr. Barak in the past, boycotted the vote in anger over the shooting of 13 Arabs by Israeli security forces in October.

For the majority of voters, the key factor was fear. While Israelis want a peace agreement, they lost faith in Mr. Barak’s ability to deliver it. Months of fighting — triggered by Mr. Sharon’s September visit to a holy site in Jerusalem — have claimed almost 400 lives. The overwhelming majority of victims have been Palestinians, but Israelis have become reacquainted with an insecurity they thought they had vanquished. This election focused on that fear.

For Mr. Barak, the results are a bitter blow. His instincts were correct, but his political skills proved inadequate. He remained a general when he needed to become a politician. In the end, even his allies deserted him. After conceding, Mr. Barak said that he would resign as Labor Party leader and give up his seat in Parliament. He did not rule out a national unity government with Mr. Sharon, but said that any decision would depend on the new government’s platform. Mr. Shimon Peres, a senior Labor Party official who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, has said that he would join a government if it was genuinely committed to peace.

Mr. Sharon proposed just such a grand alliance in his victory speech — immediately after declaring Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of Israel.” He called on Palestinians to give up their violence and return to the negotiating table. Given Mr. Sharon’s insistence on Israeli control over the entire capital, his claim that he would not concede any more territory or dismantle any settlements and his repudiation of the Camp David negotiations, it is hard to see why Palestinians would agree.

Arab reaction was negative. Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said that Mr. Sharon’s campaign statements did not represent a basis for talks between the two sides. Others spoke more darkly of the likelihood of war.

There is the hope, however, that Mr. Sharon is a more complex man than his image would suggest. He is a brilliant tactician who is said to have bad judgment. The fact that many ultra-Orthodox settlers do not trust him speaks to his unpredictability. Some would liken him to U.S. President Richard Nixon, who built a career on anticommunist credentials, but then forged relationships with communist China and the Soviet Union.

Similar hopes were pinned on Prime Ministers Rabin and Barak, warriors turned statesmen, and neither could deliver. Israel’s fractious politics proved their undoing; it may claim Mr. Sharon as well. The new prime minister inherits a deeply divided Parliament and he has 45 days to cobble together a Cabinet out of the 17 parties with seats. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2003, but they are likely to be moved up to provide some stability in domestic politics.

The uncertainties are clouded by the new administration in the United States. President George W. Bush has promised to be less involved in the peace process; that is part of his effort to craft a more “humble” foreign policy. The U.S. president pledged to work with Mr. Sharon in a phone call after the results were known. Yet, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested that the U.S. may not be so keen to follow up on Mr. Bush’s campaign promise to immediately begin moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. It is a wise decision: Few gestures would be more inflammatory.

That sort of common sense is needed. The events of the last several months have been a tragic series of miscalculations, the final impact of which will not be felt for years. The peace process — if it still exists — has been set back considerably. Trust has been destroyed, credibility has been lost. Fear is the only winner; the list of losers and victims lengthens each day.

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