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Ariel Sharon Takes Stock, Weighs His Coalition Options

Following his landslide election as prime minister, Ariel Sharon is seeking to cobble together a governing coalition and strengthen ties with the new U.S. administration.

On Tuesday, Sharon defeated incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak by 62.5 percent to 37.4 percent, one of the largest margins in Israeli history. Despite the resounding decision, pundits noted that the voter turnout of less than 59 percent was the lowest in Israeli history, indicating a large degree of uneasiness with both candidates.

On Wednesday, as congratulations — and some notes of caution — poured in from around the world, Sharon named a team of negotiators to handle his coalition- building effort. The team includes Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and former Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman.

In Labor, several politicians announced that they would run for party head to replace Barak, who resigned Tuesday night. The party also named negotiators to discuss the possibility of a national unity government with Sharon’s Likud.

On his first day as prime minister-elect, Sharon took a moment to reflect, visiting the grave site of his deceased wife, Lily, and making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

But he quickly got down to business, meeting with his coalition negotiators and fielding phone calls from world leaders. He also named a team of advisers who will travel to Washington for a round of high-level meetings to explain Sharon’s agenda.

“I think it’s important to tell the administration in Washington, Congress and the public at large about Sharon, about the very large mandate that he received in the election, about his intention to form a national unity government if it’s possible, about his intention to move ahead toward negotiations toward peace, if that’s possible,” Moshe Arens, a former defense minister and ambassador to the United States, told Israel Radio.

Along with another former ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, and former U.N. ambassador Dore Gold, Arens will be on the Washington trip.

President Bush said Wednesday that his administration would do what it could to promote stability in the Middle East and give Sharon a chance to carry out his promises, including forming a national unity government and pursuing peace efforts.

But many world leaders are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the burly ex-general.

Arens disagreed that the election of a right-wing government would necessarily hinder peace efforts.

“I think it’s important to look upon it as a process,” Arens said. “It’s a painfully slow process.”

Arens added that a right-wing government might even be more able to conclude a deal with the Palestinians than a Labor-led administration, because it could count on the support of the left for any concessions.

Sharon also is expected to dispatch envoys to European capitals and neighboring Arab states.

In the meantime, Sharon faces two domestic deadlines. He must assemble and present his new government for Knesset approval by the end of March. Failure to meet the deadline will result in new elections, although Sharon said he hopes to have a government ready within two weeks.

Further complicating matters is a March 31 deadline to pass the state budget. If Sharon fails to raise a Knesset majority for his budget, the parliament will dissolve and new elections must be held for both Knesset and prime minister.

Since Tuesday’s elections were for prime minister alone, Sharon faces the same fractious Parliament that brought down Barak.

Sharon has several options — a national unity government with Labor, a narrow coalition with right-wing and religious parties or a coalition of secular parties.

He has made clear that he prefers the national unity government with Labor that was a key element of his campaign.

Labor Party secretary Ra’anan Cohen agreed to assemble a team that would handle contacts regarding a unity government. Labor’s Knesset faction was due to discuss the issue Thursday.

The party is divided about joining a unity government, however, and an upcoming battle for party leadership — following Barak’s decision to resign as chairman — could make unity more difficult.

Knesset speaker Avraham Burg already has stated his intention to seek the party leadership. Other possible contenders are Cabinet ministers Haim Ramon, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres.

Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported Tuesday that, in contradiction to his concession speech, Barak had decided not to give up his Knesset seat. Vacating the seat for the next person on the One Israel roster would mean it would go to a member of the Gesher Party, which is likely to join Sharon’s government.

In the meantime, Sharon was due to begin discussions Thursday with Likud Knesset members who may hold Cabinet positions.

While the one-sided election outcome was seen as a reaction to Barak’s failed peace-making efforts and the ongoing Palestinian violence, analysts stressed that the low turnout should be a warning to Sharon.

Ha’aretz newspaper commentator Yoel Marcus advised Sharon not to let the victory go to his head.

The two previous elections, he noted, essentially represented votes against the incumbents, not for the challengers.

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