- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon paid a visit to Jerusalem's Old City a day after his stunning election victory and, in an ominous sign for Palestinians, pledged that it would remain under Israeli rule forever.
Mr. Sharon, who defeated outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak by 25 percentage points in Tuesday's vote, began political talks aimed at establishing a broad-based coalition with Mr. Barak's Labor party, but he also appointed a team to look into the option of forming a narrow right-wing government.
Throughout the Middle East, Arab leaders lamented Mr. Sharon's victory and predicted doom for regional peace talks.
Following the tradition of past election winners, the 72-year-old former general marched into the Old City surrounded by advisers and bodyguards, pressed a hand against the Western Wall Judaism's holiest site and read from a prayer book.
"I am visiting Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years and the united and indivisible capital of Israel with the Temple Mount at its center for all eternity," Mr. Sharon told reporters at the wall.
The statement signaled the quick and dramatic change that elections bring in Israel. Just last week, Mr. Barak had offered to cede parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians under a peace agreement.
The visit also reflected the difficulty Mr. Sharon will have making good on conflicting election promises to make no concessions on Jerusalem but still forge peace with the Palestinians and Israel's other neighbors.
"I will bring unity and I'll bring peace to the citizens of Israel and stability to the Middle East," Mr. Sharon said at the Western Wall.
Mr. Sharon, a political hawk with a record for controversy in the army and in politics, has 45 days to carve a coalition out of a splintered parliament where seats are divided almost evenly between the political left and right.
Throughout his campaign, Mr. Sharon said he preferred a national unity government that would include the big parties in parliament his own Likud and Mr. Barak's Labor.
But the crushing defeat suffered by Labor in the vote and Mr. Barak's Election Night resignation have cast a pall of uncertainty over prospects for a national unity government.
Many Labor lawmakers say Mr. Sharon's hard-line approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians makes a partnership impossible. Others think it would be wrong to leave Mr. Sharon to govern alone.
In the post-election chaos, Mr. Barak's would-be heirs are gearing up for the succession battle, further complicating the equation.
"We will try to form a national unity government," said Ruby Rivlin of Likud, a lawmaker closely identified with Mr. Sharon. "But we have the alternative of forming a narrow government. Labor shouldn't forget that."
The coalition talks were even affecting the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange where share prices fell the morning after Mr. Sharon's election. Analysts said investors preferred the stability of a broad-based coalition.
The kind of government Mr. Sharon establishes is also expected to have a strong effect on the peace process, though for some of Israel's Arab neighbors the point appeared to be moot.
Leaders of the Palestinian uprising said in a statement issued in the West Bank that they would intensify the violence against Israel and the killer Sharon.
"If the Israelis think that Sharon will make security for them, we say loudly that Israel will never have security at all," the statement said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat wrote to Mr. Sharon congratulating him on his victory, according to Mr. Sharon's aides. "Our hands will continue to be held out to make peace because both sides expect it," Eyal Arad, Mr. Sharon's security adviser, quoted the note as saying.
But Syria's government run al-Baath newspaper referred to him as "bloody terrorist and war criminal Sharon" and said his victory was a "clear message by the Zionist entity to Arabs amounting to an official declaration of war."
Many Arabs remember Mr. Sharon as the architect of Israel's 1982 Lebanon war, in which Israeli soldiers chased out Palestinian guerrillas and ended up occupying parts of the country for 18 years.
An Israeli commission of inquiry ordered Mr. Sharon removed from his post as defense minister at the time for bearing indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian troops.
Now back as prime minister-elect, the legacy of Lebanon still haunts him.

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