In the wake of the tragic death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on the Space Shuttle Columbia, there was Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and prime healer, providing solace on national television. Just five days earlier, Sharon had won a stunning election victory, and it is clear that here is a man who had forged a unique bond with the Israeli people in their time of unrelenting sorrow.
But comfort will not be enough. Sharon must begin to address his growing problems -- and soon -- or his spectacular victory may be short-lived.
The Coalition. One place where the election made Sharon's task easier is the need to build a coalition. Beforehand, the pundits all predicted that he would have three choices: a right-wing government, a secular national unity coalition with Labor and Shinui or a national unity government with Labor and the religious parties as existed before November.
These three options still exist, but Sharon did better than expected; the far right and the left did worse, freeing Sharon from an unpalatable choice made worse by his own refusal to accept the dictates of the far right and Labor's refusal to join, except perhaps under the dire pressures of a war with Iraq.
Fortunately for Sharon, the results permit him another two critical options: he can begin with a nucleus of his own Likud, the National Religious Party (NRP) and Yisrael B'Aliyah -- 46 in all -- and he may be able to add the One Nation worker's party -- three more to 49.
To get above 61, he can go with the ultrasecular and spectacularly successful Shinui (15), which has refused generally to align with religious parties, but would accept NRP for a total of 64 seats. Or Sharon could go with the two other religious parties: Shas (11) and UTJ (five) for a total of 65.
Either a basically secular or the religious parties-included coalition produces a moderate conservative government with which Sharon can live. Both have problems: the first might alienate Likud's traditional religious party alliance; the second might turn off the growing number of Israelis disgusted with the largesse distributed to religious institutions and individuals in tough times.
However, both may be workable and stable, because Sharon could always threaten to turn to an alternate alliance if the parties' demands became too great.
The Political System. The good news begins to dissipate when one considers that Sharon emerged from the campaign -- one should perhaps better say escaped -- with a cloud surrounding him over a series of scandals engulfing both his party and his family. In this sense, his reelection was more Nixon in 1972 than Reagan in 1984.
If the attorney general's office issues indictments, and absent the blunders by liberal leakers, columnists and judges that helped save Sharon during the campaign, the prime minister could be in big trouble.
Moreover, the fractured Knesset continues as a devastating obstacle to political stability. A country with its third election in less than four years confronted the worst turnout in its history (68.5 percent) and a continued multitude of political parties eroding any prime minister's capacity to pursue genuine achievements on most issues.
On the one hand, the abandonment of the direct election of the prime minister, designed to save the two major parties from further decline (because voters tended to select a Likud or Labor prime minister and a smaller party for the Knesset) did achieve some limited results. Between them, Likud and Labor received 57 seats this time compared to 45 in 1999. And the just-elected Knesset has 13 parties, which began with 15 parties but after splits and dissolutions ended with 19.
But the differences between the parties, their competing demands and the difficulty of forming a coalition and keeping it -- with all Sharon's current assets -- suggests what many Israelis think: it won't be long before they'll be going to the polls again.
Democracy is grand, but like ice cream, too much isn't right either, and no country can function efficiently if government has to stop for months every year or two to campaign, elect and form governments.
The Economy. Sharon's first term was disastrous for the economy, which continues its free- fall. The gross domestic product is actually down. The tourism industry has collapsed. Unemployment (now more than 10 percent), defense spending, inflation and emigration are up. Immigration and foreign investment are down.
No Israeli has been unaffected by the downturn, and Sharon does not seem to have a clue how to stem the tide, other than to gain new loan guarantees from the United States that are absolutely critical. Israel needs a new economic plan, but whatever coalition is formed is unlikely to produce one.
The Labor Party has the most able candidates -- at least on paper -- for dealing with this issue, but is reluctant to have Sharon get the credit, and, in any case, failed to produce viable ideas or a concerted argument on the question in the campaign. If Sharon does not address this issue effectively soon, it could easily overcome his other concerns. Some will say it should.
Security. Saving the worst for last and overshadowing all issues today is the question of what to do to stem the violence. During Sharon's first term, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism than during the years of any other previous prime minister, and he was only in office less than two years.
One conclusion that more and more Israelis came to assume was that true security could not be achieved by military force alone. And Sharon seemed to have no idea how to solve the issue diplomatically, or if he did, it was to await the next election.
However, the election is now over. He may get a temporary reprieve from the need to confront the next crisis, the war in Iraq, which may have long-term security benefits for Israel, but in the short term, could involve a direct attack on Israeli territory. Though Saddam on paper is weaker than in the last war, no one can be certain what he is actually capable of doing and whether he will do it.
But the war will end, and with it will come the probable confrontation with worldwide pressure for doing something about the continuing Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. During Sharon's first term, relations with the Arab states and the Europeans deteriorated. Sharon begins his term with better relations with the United States than ever, but he is also more dependent on American preferences than any of his predecessors.
There are straws in the wind that hint at possible new opportunities. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a dramatic call to Sharon after the victory (his first) and suggested a meeting soon (another first).
Egypt is also newly vigorous in trying to gain agreement among the Palestinians for a cease-fire. Even Arafat offered to meet with Sharon in an act either of farcical duplicity or as a sign of growing Palestinian desperation. This was followed by a Palestinian offer for the first time since the intifada began for cease-fire talks -- without preconditions, no less.
Sharon himself has hinted at new ideas that would be consistent with the roadmap endorsed by the Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia). Sharon, after all, has refused to ally with the far right over issues of a possible renewal of the peace process and the objective of a Palestinian state. And there must be some reason he is ready to be so generous to the Labor Party as a lure for its joining him.Â
Yet, Sharon's actions can all be explained by his desire to maintain a strong relationship with the United States, and even moderate concessions would require a major turnaround. The Likud primaries produced scandals, but also a right turn within the party, further limiting Sharon's flexibility, which will be constrained further if the scandals become more serious. And the last two years have proved that there is always an excuse for doing nothing.
So there remain two things the election has not changed: The other Arab states need to become more active in constraining and guiding the Palestinians and in taking confidence-building measures toward Israel, and the United States must become more active in pushing the Israelis and Palestinians from confrontation toward limited conciliation.
There are signs of very tentative movement by the Arabs. But there are no signs under the current pressures of even tentative diplomatic activity by the Bush administration.
Likud governments are often underestimated: They have brought a peace treaty with Egypt under Menachem Begin, the critical Madrid Conference under Yitzhak Shamir and the successful Wye Conference under Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter two led Labor governments to try to move further under Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and under Ehud Barak at Camp David.
Sharon is the only Likud prime minister who does not have a diplomatic accomplishment on his record. Perhaps the key question of his second term is whether he can end the intifada and begin a process of resuscitating the Israeli people's tattered well-being. Â
Steven L. Spiegel is associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations and professor of political science at UCLA. He is also a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum and advises the Center for Israel Studies at the University of Judaism.
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