JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon's political survival, the future of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and even regional stability could hinge on the nature of the coalition that the prime minister-elect forges from the 17 squabbling parties that make up Israel's parliament.
Sharon had hoped to work with the man he crushed, caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to form a right-left coalition that would give the new leader international legitimacy as he tries to make good on his promise to bring Israelis security and peace. But Barak thwarted that plan Tuesday night by resigning as the leader of his left-of-center Labor Party.
Barak's move means that there will be a leadership battle within Labor, and it is by no means clear that the party will agree to join a government led by Sharon's right-wing Likud Party that will undoubtedly include ultra-Orthodox and even far-right parties.
If he can't build a coalition with Labor, Sharon will be forced to form a narrow government with his natural partners, the ultra-Orthodox and far right. They share his deep attachment to the greater land of Israel and to controversial Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But those coalition partners could pressure Sharon to turn his back on talks with the Palestinians and crack down hard on them, policies bound to strain Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors, the United States and the international community.
Increased tension with the Palestinians, or a particularly harsh crackdown on them, could in turn lead to a rupture in Israel's relations with neighboring Jordan and Egypt, with whom Israel is at peace, and even raise the specter of the region spiraling toward another war, as Barak warned during the election campaign.
A partnership with the far right also could deprive Sharon of the chance to vindicate himself after years of being branded a warmonger and military adventurer by many Israelis and Western governments.
"Sharon wants legitimization, and he can get that only from the Labor Party," political commentator Hanan Kristal said. With the far right, "you can go to war--not to peace or even to just maintaining the status quo."
With so much at stake, Sharon on Tuesday asked Barak to lead Labor into the next government. In his concession speech, Barak said that he thought Labor should consider joining with Sharon if the prime minister-elect shows a commitment to making peace. But he said that he would not be the one leading the party as it makes its decision.
Likud lawmaker Meir Sheetrit said he hopes that Labor will interpret Barak's decisive defeat as a clear-cut message from voters that the party's approach to peacemaking "has failed and they have to follow the desire of the people to try a different way." The Likud Party, Sheetrit said, understands "that only if this government has a large parliamentary basis can we tackle the serious issues that face us--the peace process, security, the economy."
"I would say that the government will continue the quest for peace and will try to ensure the security of the state of Israel and not more than that," he said. "This is not the time to quarrel over what kind of peace we want."
Although Sharon provided few details of his vision of peace during the campaign, he said enough to make it hard for any Labor Party leader to join his government. Sharon vowed to ignore the concessions that Barak had offered to the Palestinians during negotiations at Camp David, Md., last summer and in subsequent talks.
Barak was willing to abandon dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and all of those in Gaza. He was willing to cede sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and explored ways of sharing sovereignty over the city's holy sites. Barak also was willing to pull Israeli troops out of the strategic Jordan Valley.
Sharon said that he will keep Jerusalem united under Israeli rule and will maintain Israel's control over the Jordan Valley. He told potential far-right coalition partners that he won't dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the West Bank, no matter how small or isolated it may be.
And while he said that he is prepared to make "concessions," Sharon also said he envisions a Palestinian state eventually being established in only about 42% of the West Bank. Barak was prepared to cede about 94% of the region.
"Some people, including myself, believe that we are facing general elections in another year, or even less," said Uzi Baram, a leading dove in Labor. "We have to be very active in the opposition," rather than joining Sharon's government, he said. "I don't think we can extend the peace process under Sharon."
Zalman Shoval, Israel's former ambassador to the United States and Sharon's foreign policy advisor, said the incoming prime minister will soon prove that he is no extremist.