Israel Votes 2003 with Sharon Still in Control, Focus Shifts to ‘day After’ Israel’s Election

The election campaign winding to a close this week should have been about which party has the best plan to extricate Israel from the current cycle of Palestinian terror and economic decline.

Instead, it focused almost exclusively on sleaze in the political system and corruption allegations against the leading players, especially Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But the core issues aren’t about to go away, and the way the next government handles the Palestinian dilemma will determine the reality Israelis will live with for years to come.

Polls show that most of the public seems to prefer Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna’s ideas for separation from the Palestinians as the key to security and economic regeneration — but they don’t really trust Mitzna to do it.

With substance largely shunted aside, the campaign has boiled down to a choice between youth and experience. Mitzna, the political neophyte, is facing Sharon the seasoned campaigner, who may be tainted by scandal but who has proven himself capable of steering the state.

Given Israel’s recent experience with novices who swept into office with big ideas but who accomplished little, voters are leaning toward the Likud Party and Sharon, the father figure who projects a more reassuring and protective image.

The irony, pundits have noted, is that the public seems to want a right-of-center prime minister — to carry out left- wing policies.

With the Jan. 28 vote only days away, Sharon, 74, seems virtually assured of a second term, and pundits already are asking what he intends to do differently this time around.

The word from his inner circle is that this time Sharon is determined to make peace with the Palestinians. He wants to go down in history, they say, as an “Israeli de Gaulle” — a general who, in the twilight of his career, made peace with the people he had spent most of his life fighting.

Aides say that’s why Sharon so wants Labor in his coalition. And, they say, that’s why he has set up a team under Dan Meridor that has begun secret talks with Palestinian leaders — aside from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon continues to shun.

Such whispers have right wingers so worried that settler leaders like Elyakim Haetzni are calling on the Likud to dump Sharon, “the new leftist,” and replace him with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seen as more hawkish.

But there is a rival theory on the left. Despite the fact that the campaign has been short on substance, left-wing pundits see the new peace talk from the Sharon camp as a late pitch to voters. The aim, these skeptics say, is to win over floating centrist voters and, after the election, entice Labor to join his coalition.

Yet these skeptics argue that Sharon is congenitally incapable of making peace: He is too attached to the settlements he helped found, and his truncated vision of Palestinian statehood will find few takers on the other side, they say.

“Sharon,” one pundit wrote, “is incapable, psychologically and politically, of even starting negotiations.”

Whether Sharon has adopted peacemaking as a strategy, or whether he merely talks of it to buy time and make political gains, could prove to be the most important question in the election aftermath. And Sharon could be put to the test very soon, depending on events in the Persian Gulf.

Much will depend on what happens after the anticipated American-led war on Iraq. Top U.S. officials are intimating that one of the first orders of business in the post-Saddam era will be a serious U.S.-led attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz suggested that after Iraq, the United States quickly will turn its attention to curbing Israeli settlement activity. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States intends to push ahead vigorously with a peace “road map” — which calls for full Palestinian statehood within three years — being developed by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

In Israel, opinion is divided on how much effort the Bush administration will be prepared to invest on the Israeli-Palestinian track. On the left, Danny Yatom, a former Mossad chief and key policy adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is convinced that the United States will achieve its goals in Iraq and then exploit the favorable regional conditions to force through an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

“I think the Americans will be far firmer with the parties and won’t allow them to drag their feet,” he says. The United States might even try to impose a solution on the two sides, Yatom says.

On the right, Uzi Arad, a former deputy Mossad chief and top policy adviser to Netanyahu, argues that the situation is far more complex. The Americans will have so many other things on their plate in the post-Saddam era that they will only turn to the Israeli-Palestinian issue if and when they think the parties are ready, Arad says.

In this view, the Bush administration will put its resources and prestige on the line only “if they identify tangible chances of success” — and that, Arad believes, could be a long way off.

How Sharon responds to a new American initiative, and whether the Americans view the situation optimistically, will depend to a great extent on the coalition Sharon is able to put together.

A narrow coalition with right-wing and religious parties would effectively prohibit peace moves. And unless Labor relents and joins a unity government — or Shinui relents and agrees to sit with the fervently Orthodox — a narrow, right wing-religious coalition is all Sharon would have.

Partly to pave the way for a national unity government, a handful of Mitzna’s opponents within Labor have been pressing to replace him with Shimon Peres as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. That comes after a poll in Monday’s Ma’ariv newspaper predicted that Labor would win another 10 seats — and possibly take the election — if the more experienced Peres were party leader.

A switch at this late hour is unlikely, especially since Peres says he backs Mitzna. But pundits see the affair as the first attempt by other Laborites to erode Mitzna’s standing after the election and chip away at his refusal to enter a national unity government.

If Labor does go in, Sharon may come through as the peacemaker his aides say he wants to be. If not, he and Israel may have to wait until the election after this one — when someone other than Sharon might become prime minister.

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