All Writings
February 2, 2003

Sharon’s Last Opportunity

How Prime Minister Sharon will capitalize on his overwhelming victory in last Tuesday's parliamentary elections remains unclear, and Sharon himself may not know the answer. On the one hand, he would like to be remembered as the leader who brought peace to his people, yet, on the other, every fiber of his being has been molded by revisionist Zionism, and this is what may prevent him from making the necessary territorial concessions for peace. Will he rise to the historic occasion or succumb to the pull of his life-long ideological bent and refuse to heed the yearning of his people for peace?

A similar conflict rages within the Israeli public. The peace with security that Sharon promised in his first campaign two years ago never materialized. The people, nevertheless, have given him an even stronger mandate because of his tough stand against the Palestinians whom the Israelis blame for the atrocious violence and the collapse of the peace process. That said, a majority of Israelis support the basic premise of the Labor party platform which calls for the resumption of negotiations, even though, if successful, the result will be the return of most of the occupied territories. Can Sharon find a way out of his internal conflict and that of the Israeli people? For all intents and purposes, he now has two viable options in forming his new coalition government, and which one he chooses will tell us which side of his divided self has won.

The first option, and the one that stands a reasonable chance of successfully delivering on Sharon's own slogan of "peace and security," is a government comprised of the three largest parties: his own party, Likud, with 38 members of parliament, Labor, with 19, and Shinui (a centrist party), with 15. As the Kineset has 120 members, this would mean that the government would command a 72-vote majority.

The obstacles to forming it are, however, formidable but not insurmountable if Sharon truly has opted for peace. First, Labor's leader, Amram Mitsna, has pledged not to join a coalition government simply to create a facade of national unity. Labor will cooperate on the condition that Sharon agrees to support a credible peace plan and demonstrates, both by words and deeds, that he intends to make territorial concessions that have a reasonable chance of being accepted by the Palestinians. Such a plan would have to include an immediate freeze of existing settlements and building new ones. An agreement with Labor along these lines will put Sharon on a collision course with Likud's extreme right-wing led by Natanyahu. Second, to lure Shinui party to join his government, Sharon would have to bow to its cardinal precondition: the exclusion of any religious party from the government. This would mean alienating the settlement movement that Sharon has staunchly supported over the years. Third, Sharon must find a credible and responsible Palestinian interlocutor to negotiate peace. If such a negotiating partner, excluding Arafat, does not come forward in the next several months and the violence continues, Sharon will be under great pressure by his coalition partners- Labor and Shinui- and the public at large to accelerate the building of the fence separating the West Bank from Israel proper which will, in effect, leave most of the settlements behind — not a rosy prospect for a man who has spent the best years of his life fighting for the rights of the Jewish people to live in their ancient homeland.

The second option is for Sharon to turn to his traditional political allies- the religious and right of center parties- and form a narrow coalition government comprising of Likud, Shas, United Tora, the National Religious Party, Yisrael B'Aliya and One Nation, which will provide him with a total of 65 members in the Keneset. Given its composition, such a coalition would be unable to make any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians and, it would also be extremely vulnerable to a no-confidence vote. Moreover, Sharon will, sooner than later, be faced with the prospect of President Bush, once he has pulled his attention away from Iraq, to put forth his Road Map for Peace. America would then exert immense pressure on Sharon to make some real concessions. At a minimum, Mr. Bush will ask him to freeze expansion of all settlements and withdraw Israeli forces from the territories they have occupied during the past several months. Considering the political dynamics of Israeli society and its conflicting ideologies, it is unlikely, then, that such a government would last more than one year. In the interim, Labor will lie-in-wait, reorganize itself, and then challenge Sharon for failing to deliver, the second time around, on his promise to bring peace with security.

To be sure, Sharon's work is cut out for him. What type of a coalition government he forms will give a clear indication of the road he has chosen to travel. The electorate has given him a mandate to rise above the political fray and leave behind the legacy of peace or to forfeit forever this chance. He will not be granted another.