Fri, 31 Jan 2003

All-conquering Sharon becomes bashful -- Why?

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian News Service, Jerusalem

Now we may get to see the true face of Ariel Sharon. His victory early Wednesday morning has given the Israelis, and the wider world, a chance at last to see what this man really wants.

For not only has Sharon become the first incumbent Israeli prime minister since the 1980s to be re-elected, he has been handed a triple mandate: He, his Likud party and the wider "national camp" have all triumphed. Commanding nearly 70 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli right is now free to do what it likes. For two years it had to share power in a "national unity" government with Labor; now it can be true to itself.

Yet the PM wants instead to return to the previous set-up, ruling jointly with Labor. So why is Sharon so anxious to cooperate rather than rule alone? Was the outgoing leftist Yossi Sarid right when he said that the Likud always "looks for partners to save them from themselves"? Or does Sharon want a Labor figleaf to cover his still-hawkish intentions? The coalition negotiations now under way should give us the answer.

For a national unity government will not come easy this time. Labor's defeated leader, Amram Mitzna, has vowed not to take his party into a coalition with Sharon. But several of his colleagues, chiefly former leaders Shimon Peres and Benjamin Ben- Eliezer, would love to return to their ministerial chairs.

Yet to persuade Labor to dump Mitzna and come with them will take a lot more work. This coalition will exact a far higher price for Sharon.

Would he agree, say, to a withdrawal from Gaza? If yes, then Sharon would clearly be to the left of his fellow Likudniks and a genuine peace- seeker. But if, as is more likely, he could not bear such a concession then we will know he only wants Labor for the veneer of pro-peace legitimacy. He knows that Peres' mere presence gives an international kosher stamp to his government. The last thing George Bush needs now is Arab opinion inflamed by a full-bloodedly rightwing government in Israel.

No wonder Sharon was in no mood to celebrate. The government he's got he doesn't want; the government he wants he can't have -- not easily anyway.

Labor has two immediate tasks. First, it must realize why it lost. There were a few campaign missteps by Mitzna, and the conspicuous infighting of inveterate plotters such as Peres did not help, but the chief explanation remains stubbornly clear. Israelis have still not recovered from what one analyst calls "the trauma of Camp David", the failure of Israel's land-for- peace offer to the Palestinians in July 2000. That has fatally undermined Israelis' faith in Labor's core political program: Progress towards peace. The party cannot merely repeat the 1990s slogans from the glory days of the Oslo period. They have to craft a new message, one that no longer seems to rely on the possibility of cutting a deal with Yasser Arafat. Two years of violence have shattered Israeli trust in the Palestinian leader completely; the Israeli left now has to work around that fact.

But the second explanation for defeat is surely Labor's participation in the last Sharon government. Peaceniks condemned it as treachery, while no rightists were won over: Why vote for Likud lite when they could have the real thing? Result: Labor lost votes to the left and right.

Now it must follow Mitzna's lead and rebuild in opposition, persuading Israelis that -- despite the current, besieged mood -- there is an alternative. One veteran Labor activist told me this week that Mitzna's model should be the British Labor party: "It took them 18 years, but they won power again." For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, let's hope it does not take that long.