Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon may find that the worst thing about his landslide victory Tuesday over incumbent Ehud Barak was precisely his 25-point margin of victory.
The very magnitude of Sharon's victory triggered Barak's decision, two hours after the exit polls, to announce his resignation from active politics. Political pundits here believe that with Barak gone and a leadership battle set to begin within the Labor Party, Sharon's chances of setting up a Likud-Labor unity government have substantially declined.
The huge success of Sharon, a 72-year-old former general, was grounded in large part on a vast boycott of the elections by Israel's Arab community. Making up some 12 percent of the electorate, Israel's Arabs stayed away in droves. Only 13 percent of them came out to vote, and many of those placed blank ballots in the voting envelopes.
Knesset member Abdel Malek Dahamshe, leader of the Islamicist faction in the Knesset, said the Arab boycott had led many leftist Jewish voters to stay away from the polling stations or to cast blank protest ballots, driving home the blow to Barak.
"No party will take us for granted again," Dahamshe predicted.
The Arabs mounted their boycott in reaction to the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in clashes with the police in early October, during the first phase of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Whatever the motivation, many Jewish voters did indeed skip this election: At under 59 percent, it was by far the lowest turnout ever registered in Israel. By comparison, turnout at the last general election in May 1999 was nearly 79 percent.
Some Jewish leftists have suggested that the boycott or blank-ballot phenomenon may grow into a mass protest movement.
One of these is Motti Ashkenazi, the man who launched the grass-roots protest movement after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that eventually forced Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to resign. Ashkenazi feels the protest trend Tuesday reflected a profound disillusionment not only with Barak but with the entire political leadership of the left and says that if the movement takes hold, it could give rise to a sweeping renewal of the nation's political leadership.
Others, however, regard the mood of apathy in this campaign as potentially dangerous to Israel's democratic character and institutions. While a low turnout is normal in the United States, it may mark a trend that signifies a deep crisis of political trust in Israel.
While the prime minister-elect made no direct reference in his victory speech to the low turnout and its causes, he did issue an impassioned call for national healing and reconciliation.
"The State of Israel," Sharon began, "has tonight set out on a new course of striving for domestic peace within itself and for peace with others."
Sharon recognized "the powerful public longing for unity" and pledged to create "the widest possible government," urging Labor to join him "in a true partnership for security and peace."
Certainly Sharon's core coalition represents a more varied swath of Israeli society than the left-liberal minority government Barak led by the end of his 19-month term.
Having fallen out with his original Orthodox and Russian immigrant partners, at the end Barak could count only on the support of Labor and Meretz. Barak will continue as prime minister until Sharon manages to form a government.
Sharon has picked up the support of all the factions that defected from Barak, and his government is likely to contain rightists, centrists, fervently Orthodox, modern Orthodox and the two large Russian immigrant parties.
If Labor does not join him, however, Sharon's weakness will be this multiplicity of small and mid-sized parties, all of which he will need to keep under his tent to retain a working majority in the Knesset. A tally of the parties allied to Likud, together with all the Barak defectors, gives Sharon a slim majority of 63 Knesset seats out of 120. And the various components will be pulling in disparate directions.
This was precisely why Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly contemplated a political comeback in December, preferred to stay out of the arena at this time, waiting until the Knesset implodes and new general elections are held for both premier and parliament.
In Sharon's favor, however, is the inescapable fact -- inescapable for the small parties -- that if Sharon loses power there will be general elections, and many of them may not be voted back into the Knesset.
Sharon's close aides hope this consideration will be enough to hold things together at least for a year. Netanyahu's supporters, on the other hand, predict general elections in the fall.
In any case, there is still the possibility of a unity government, even with Labor in the throes of a leadership battle.
In his concession speech Tuesday night, Barak urged his party not to reject Sharon's unity overture out of hand but to examine whether joint policy lines could be found that would enable the two movements to work together.
He warned, however, against "sham unity" that would require Labor to abandon its basic peace policy.
That policy, Barak said, may have "come before its time" for both Israelis and Palestinians, but ultimately would provide the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
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