- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

JERUSALEM Public-opinion polls show Likud leader Ariel Sharon headed for a sweeping victory over Prime Minister Ehud Barak in tomorrow's election with projected margins of 20 points in some polls and on election eve speculation turned to the prospects of a coalition led by Likud.

Most analysts say the election rivals will become partners in the next government. They almost have to.

An evenly divided parliament and tough decisions ahead on questions of war and peace will make it difficult for any leader to govern with a narrow coalition.

While each will face internal party opposition to the idea of joining forces, Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon have both signaled a preference for a broad-based coalition.

"I think these two guys decided long ago to get in bed together after the election," said analyst Amir Oren, who writes for the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper. "The vote will only determine who gets to be on top and who on the bottom."

Israelis call it a national unity government, something of a euphemism considering that previous ones failed to heal Israel's sharp political and cultural divisions.

Successive unity governments in the 1980s pulled Israel out of its triple-digit inflation and eased its conflict in Lebanon. But on the peace front, the combination of the conservative Likud bloc and left-center Labor Party produced political paralysis.

This time around, after four months of unparalleled fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, analysts say Israel's left-wing camp and right-wing camp have moved closer.

"I don't think the gap is that large anymore," said political scientist Avraham Diskin of Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "Many people on the right now recognize that giving most of the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state serves Israel's interests."

On the left, Mr. Diskin said, Palestinian violence coming on the heels of a failed peace summit at Camp David last July shattered the illusion that peace with the Palestinians is possible in the foreseeable future.

Others say the only way forward after the election is through "unilateral disengagement," a program under which Israel would evacuate troops and settlements from parts of the West Bank without an agreement with the Palestinians and continue to hold other parts based on its own political and military considerations.

"I think this type of disengagement is Israel's only alternative," said Shlomo Avineri, former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, who is generally aligned with the Israeli left. "It has elements that appeal to both left and right," he said.

Mr. Avineri said that until a few months ago he thought Israelis and Palestinians could reach a negotiated settlement. He changed his mind after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected what Mr. Avineri and most Israelis felt were generous offers from Mr. Barak.

"I don't think it's realistic to expect meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, no matter who wins the election. Barak has already failed, and I don't think Sharon has anything better to offer," Mr. Avineri said.

Mr. Sharon, whose 20-point lead in the polls has held up throughout the campaign, has already proposed to form a coalition with Mr. Barak, alienating some political allies along the way.

"When I'm elected, I intend that evening to call on Mr. Barak to join a national unity government," Mr. Sharon said last week. But national unity is a popular campaign slogan that Israeli politicians often abandon after the vote.

Mr. Sharon faces opposition to the idea of power-sharing from some members of his own Likud and, more vehemently, from members of smaller parties to the right of Likud.

Still, if he formed a narrow right-wing coalition, his majority in parliament would be razor-thin, and he would probably have to contend with the kind of political instability that plagued Mr. Barak for much of his two years in office.

Mr. Barak's situation is even more complicated.

If he loses the election, Mr. Barak will be pressured by the left wing of his government to stay away from Mr. Sharon. He'll also face heat from party rivals gunning for his job.

Some analysts think that a decision to link with Mr. Sharon will split Labor, and that ultimately Mr. Barak will join the government with only sections of his party.

"Either way, I think Barak is finished, and that's a real tragedy," said Mr. Avineri. "He had good intentions, but everything he did went wrong."

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