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Grim Sharon Faces Few Options After Historic Electoral Victory

JERUSALEM — The Likud Party’s overwhelming victory in this week’s Israeli elections may have given Prime Minister Sharon several options for building a new government, but his first choice, a broad coalition with Labor, appears to be achingly out of reach.

Even as the election night returns were coming in, showing Sharon with a Knesset bloc nearly doubled from 19 to 37 seats and a renewed mandate of historic proportions, the prime minister was showing in word and manner that the victory was, from his point of view, bittersweet. “There is no room for celebration,” the somber-faced prime minister told cheering supporters at an election night victory party. “Israel must not be left internally divided, consumed by hatred. Israel needs stability, before the crisis deepens even more.”

Forming a broader coalition, however, presents formidable if not insurmountable mathematical hurdles. Sharon’s preferred partners, Labor with 19 seats and Shinui with 15, both have laid down pre-election markers that will make joining a Sharon-led coalition almost impossible.

The Likud’s dominance in the next Knesset gives Sharon several different options for coalition-building. He can play off Shinui against the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Torah Judaism parties, or juxtapose the ultra-right National Union with the centrist Am Ehad and Yisrael b’Aliya. But all of these combinations will yield only a very slim majority in parliament, and the resulting government would be perpetually unstable.

Although the vote was widely interpreted as signaling a sharp turn to the right, Sharon is determined, as he has made clear publicly and privately, to resist at all costs forming a narrow government that depends on his natural allies of the right-wing and religious blocs. Such a government, Sharon believes, would isolate him diplomatically, inflame Israel’s Arab neighbors, alienate an already hostile Europe and even endanger Sharon’s most precious asset, his relations with the United States.

But in his bid to reestablish the kind of broad coalition that served him so well during the last two years, Sharon has a hard nut to crack, Labor leader Amram Mitzna. In an echo of the Lebanon War 20 years ago, when a young brigadier-general Amram Mitzna publicly demanded then-defense minister Sharon’s ouster, so today Mitzna still refuses to serve under Sharon’s command. Mitzna’s party might pressure him to bend. But ironically, despite his party’s drubbing, Mitzna has succeeded in infusing his ranks with a fighting, oppositionist mood. Many party activists are convinced that Labor’s service under Sharon in the last government was the main reason for its current disaster.

In order to give a more moderate image to his coalition, Sharon could also try to woo Shinui, the Cinderella story of this election, but in doing so he would have to shunt the Likud’s long-held alliance with the Orthodox community. Indeed, Sharon’s own Likud is likely to oppose such a move, since antagonizing the religious could cost them dearly in future elections. Besides, relying on Shinui is a risky gamble for Sharon. The secular party’s 14 Knesset backbenchers are a mostly a collection of complete unknowns, recruited to back up the party’s combative celebrity leader, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. From what is known, many appear to hold views on key issues that are way to the left of Lapid, much less Sharon. To many around the prime minister, they are a potential unguided missile.

Lapid himself was calling this week for Sharon to lead a broad secular coalition with Shinui and Labor as his main partners. Such a combination, indeed, is the option preferred by most Israelis, as all recent opinion polls show. The mathematics are plausible. With Likud’s 37 seats, Labor’s 19 and Shinui’s 15, a “secular unity coalition” could enter into power with a solid 71 seat majority in the 120-member house, which could grow after smaller parties join. But this combination, Sharon’s dream team, did not appear to be in the works, unless outside forces intervene.

By law Sharon has 42 days to square the circle and form some sort of coalition, before Israel’s figurehead president is required to turn to another party or call new elections. Pundits and prognosticators suggest Labor’s leadership will either pressure Mitzna to compromise or simply dump him and join Sharon’s government before that time. Some commentators point to the bellicose tone of President Bush’s State of the Union address, delivered around the same time as Sharon’s victory speech, as evidence that a war against Iraq will break out before Sharon’s grace period is over. That could provide Mitzna with the national emergency he needs to climb down from his tree and join Sharon’s coalition.

Mitzna is also expected to come under heavy pressure from business and economic leaders, many of whom are committed Labor supporters. The business community is apprehensive that a narrow government would fail to provide the economic leadership needed to extract Israel from its current morass. Economists also worry that a bellicose right-wing government might undermine the Bush administration’s current goodwill toward Israel, and thus endanger the emergency $12 billion aid package that Israel has requested. Without the American assistance, many economists agree, the Israeli economy could be headed for total collapse.

Sharon is likely to enlist former foreign minister Shimon Peres in his efforts to erode Mitzna’s opposition to a broad coalition, or, if necessary, to fan the flames of Labor’s disappointment and pave the way for Mitzna’s outright deposal. If former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who longs to recapture the Labor throne he lost to Mitzna, joins forces with Peres, Mitzna will have a hard time convincing his own party apparatus to sit on the sidelines while Sharon gets on with his rule.

While Sharon was contemplating his options, the public began to digest the enormity of the electoral change wrought by the elections. As the right triumphed, the left was decimated, with Labor and Meretz combined losing more than a third of their previous strength. Yossi Sarid, the iconoclastic Meretz leader, announced his resignation after losing the battle for liberal, middle-class votes to the charismatic Lapid. At the same time, the Yisrael B’aliyah party and the Russian-immigrant constituency it represents were reeling from party leader and onetime Soviet Refusenik Natan Sharansky’s resignation of his Knesset seat following the party’s dismal showing.

Several reasons seemed apparent for the left’s dismal showing. Chief among them was the electorate’s gut reaction to two years of Palestinian terrorism and its consequent disenchantment with peace parties that advocate gestures toward the Palestinians. Moreover, Labor and the left have lost touch over the years with some of the country’s fastest growing constituencies — North African Jews and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union — and have been increasingly cast as a party of well-to-do liberal Ashkenazim. Even on that front, Labor lost heavily to Shinui, whose Lapid knew better how to tap the simmering anti-religious resentment of many middle-class Jews of Europen origin without arousing the anti-Arab ire of some.

Labor was also done in by Mitzna’s evident lack of charisma, and by the terrible campaign run by his advisers. Labor failed to capitalize on the corruption scandals that plagued the Likud throughout the election campaign, and in the end could only watch as the scandals evolved, in the eyes of many Israelis, into a tale of Sharon’s persecution by the country’s much-hated liberal “elites.” Sharon’s popularity during his tenure proved stronger than the scandals, and in all opinion polls he towered above any potential rival as Israel’s most trusted leader.

Labor’s misfortune is ironic, given that the Israeli public, according to all the polls, now supports much of its platform, including “separation” from the Palestinians, dismantling settlements and erecting a fence along the lines of the 1967 borders. But the public wants a “tough guy” like Sharon to carry out these policies, rather than Labor, which, in the public’s eye, was hoodwinked by the Palestinians in the 1993 Oslo accords.

The turnout in these elections was the lowest ever in elections for the Knesset, under 69%. One reason for voter apathy was the general assessment that the elections will fail to produce any dramatic change in the harsh realities facing the country, nor will they alter the decades old “eternal tie” between the two political blocs. On the second point, at least, the voters were wrong, because the new Knesset is radically different from the old, representing a historical shift from left to center, and from there to the right.

Now Sharon can easily cobble together the kind of government that he does not want, but will have a hard time establishing the broad coalition for which he yearns, and that many believe is what the country needs. Sharon has achieved an amazing triumph, but nonetheless finds himself in a bind.

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