- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) — There are three rules for Israeli elections. The first, to be borne in mind after Tuesday's votes are counted, is that the actual composition of the coalition government takes weeks to decide, as the parties haggle their way to a deal.

The second rule is that the mix of small parties in the Knesset usually reflects Israel's confused and quarrelsome demography of Orthodox and secular, liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves, Russian immigrants and Israeli Arabs.

The third rule is that a majority of the Middle East's only democracy usually agrees on something important, but the parties reflect it in such a confusing way that it becomes very hard to govern.

This time, the third rule could get broken because Israelis broadly agree about three things. One is that the economy is in dreadful shape, hit simultaneously by the puncturing of the dot-com bubble, the global slowdown and the dire effects of fighting the intifada.

But the economy isn't an election issue because Israelis do not have the usual luxury enjoyed by democracies of voting their pocketbooks. The other two issues they do agree on are wildly contradictory.

Successive opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Israelis would agree to withdraw from virtually all of the occupied territories, abandoning most of the settlements and even divide Jerusalem, to allow the creation of an independent

Palestinian state. The catch is that they naturally insist that such a new Palestine not be any security threat to Israel.

This explains why an almost similar proportion of Israelis, close to 70 percent, routinely tell pollsters that they back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unleashing of the Israeli Army against the Palestinian territories in the (so far unavailing) attempt to stop — or intimidate — terrorism and the suicide bombers.

They understandably refuse to "reward terror" (in Sharon's phrase) by agreeing to a Palestine that would be dominated by the wholly untrustworthy Yasser Arafat or the ruthless militants of Hamas.

Despite the scandals over party corruption and his controversial sons, Sharon looks likely to remain prime minister and his Likud should be the largest party in the Knesset. (But note that there are more undecided voters this time around than ever before. And the fiercely secular Shinui party could get enough protest votes to overtakes Labor as the second largest group in the Knesset.)

But to secure a governing majority, Sharon will have to make a choice — and sell it to a group of Likud members of the Knesset who look even more hard-line than he.

Sharon could just be in a position to govern with a Likud-Right-Orthodox alliance, dismaying those in the Bush administration who think this could be the year to resolve both Iraq and the Israel-Palestine crisis. In such a divisively right-wing coalition (including some who want all Palestinians expelled), Sharon would be the most "liberal" figure and constantly watching for a palace coup by Benjamin Netanyahu. Note that Sharon has already turned down this option, in opting last year for early elections.

Alternatively, Sharon could try a new "national unity" alliance with Labor, but the current Labor leader — Amram Mitzna — has ruled that out. No matter. Mitzna could be dumped, and both the veteran Shimon Peres and the last Labor leaders (and Sharon's Minister of Defense) Ben Eliezer have dropped hints that they could be available.

Israel's corporate and industrial chieftains would probably be prepared to ask them to join a national unity government to help save the economy. And in the hope of getting some kind of peace process back on track, the Bush administration and the Europeans might be prepared to sweeten their path with offers of economic support.

There are two problems with this. One decisive constituency for Israel's future will not be voting, or might be casting bombs instead. The suicide bombers of Hamas, or of the ominously strengthening al Qaida groups in the region, can explode the logic and wisdom out of Israeli politics almost at will. So far they have not bombed Israel out of its democratic principles, but who knows how much an embattled people can take?

The second problem is that there is no credible peace process to be revived. Sharon has already sneered at the "road map"to peace that Bush and the Europeans have crafted with the United Nations and the Russians.

But maybe there could be, once the dust of elections (and Iraq) has settled. Lurking in position papers and informal soundings is a proposal being floated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that could just reconcile Israel's yearnings for peace with a guarantee of security.

It suggests an international military force — possibly NATO — offering to police the West Bank and Gaza. This would allow Israeli troops to withdraw, give space for a reform of the Palestinian Authority and help both economies to recover in peace. It would also make the troops into instant targets for al Qaida and its sympathizers, who would know that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would signify their worst strategic defeat.

This Israeli election seems unlikely to settle anything. (See Rules 1, 2 and 3 above.) Maybe the very tentative Blair plan could.

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