The Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a crushing victory in Israel’s general election held earlier this week. Although the scale of the win raised some eyebrows, Likud’s strong showing was expected: The chief opposition, the left-leaning Labor Party, has been unable to generate much enthusiasm despite — or perhaps because of — a new leader, Mr. Amram Mitzna, a former mayor of Haifa.
The results do not hold out promise of progress in the violent confrontation with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon has shown no inclination to deal. And even if he did, Israeli politics is still too divided to permit a bold overture to the Palestinians.
This week’s vote was Israel’s fourth national election in seven years. No Israeli government has served a full four-year term since 1988. Mr. Sharon’s own coalition survived for less than half that period. With the country in the grips of the worst recession in its history and mired in a 28-month Palestinian intifada that has no end in sight, most electorates would have opted for change. But in Israel, resignation prevailed over anger. One sign of the malaise was evident in voter turnout, which, at 68.5 percent, was the worst in Israel’s history.
While final results are not expected for two weeks, projections show Likud claiming 36 seats in the 120-member Parliament, nearly doubling the 19 seats it held in the outgoing legislature. Labor was badly diminished: It lost eight seats and now holds only 18 posts in the new Parliament.
Another big winner was Shinui, a secular party that is now the third-largest group in the legislature with 14 seats. Shinui’s gains were balanced to some extent by those of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party that now has 13 seats. A big loser was the leftwing Meretz party, Labor’s partner in peacemaking, whose representation was halved from 10 seats to five.
With his victory, Mr. Sharon has won the right to form another government. He has six weeks to do so. The prime minister has said he wants to again build a national unity government that would include the two largest parties. Mr. Mitzna has said he would not form a government with Likud and reminded Mr. Sharon after the election that “a pledge is a pledge.”
The head of Shinui, Mr. Tommy Lapid, has called for a “secular unity government” that would exclude religious parties. While there is support for that platform — Shinui’s popularity is the product of a campaign to reduce religious influence in Israel — Mr. Sharon is unlikely to exclude religious groups that have been key supporters of Likud.
Mr. Sharon could form a government of right-leaning and religious parties that would have a comfortable majority in Parliament. That is very unlikely, however. It would drastically reduce the prime minister’s room for maneuver and would harden international sentiment against Israel. The Palestinians and the Arab world would see it as a complete repudiation of the land for peace formula on which they have hung their hopes since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. It would also irritate the United States, which does not want to see Israel do anything that complicates the task of building an international consensus to support war against Iraq.
What is difficult to understand is the Israeli public’s continuing support for Mr. Sharon. He came to power promising peace and security for the Israeli people and has delivered neither. The violence has intensified during his term in office and, despite hints that the war-maker had a few surprises up his sleeve, he has shown no creativity — or even an inclination to compromise with the Palestinians.
Indeed, in the last year, Israeli actions have destroyed the Palestinian Authority’s ability to enforce whatever peace they might have chosen. In recent weeks, Mr. Sharon’s party and his sons have been dragged into scandals.
Stranger still, most Israelis apparently support Mr. Mitzna’s peace proposals. They want to see Israeli troops and settlers withdraw from the occupied territories, they prefer stricter segregation between the two peoples and they support a Palestinian state. Why then did “the Bulldozer” (as Mr. Sharon is known) win?
Most likely, it was the comfort of a known quantity. Publics rarely turn their backs on leaders in the middle of a crisis. There is security in Mr. Sharon’s pugnacious demeanor; Israelis may not like the man, but they know he will defend them. Mr. Mitzna may have good ideas, but the leader himself is untested. Given the stakes, the reluctance to try the unknown is understandable. Unfortunately, the status quo is proving unsupportable as well.
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