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Sharon Stays: Live With It

January 30, 2003

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's resounding victory in Tuesday's national election forces a reality check on Israelis and Israel's Arab neighbors. Despite more than two years of Palestinian violence and a terrible economy in Israel, Sharon's Likud Party nearly doubled its seats in parliament.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak read the results correctly. He telephoned his congratulations to Sharon and told a United Arab Emirates newspaper that Cairo would have to increase contacts with Israel. The days of standing back and hoping Israel would pick a prime minister more to Egypt's liking are over; Mubarak said it was time for "new tactics" to advance the peace process.

Sharon's Likud Party increased its seats in the 120-member Knesset from 19 to 37. The Labor Party, which bolted from Sharon's coalition government to demand new elections, declined from 26 seats to 19, its fewest seats ever. Labor had picked a new leader for the elections, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna. He campaigned on a pledge to immediately reopen peace talks with Palestinians, whose territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. Mitzna also called for withdrawing from most of the occupied territories and building a fence to keep Palestinians out of Israel. Israelis told pollsters they agreed with most of Mitzna's positions, yet they voted for Sharon because they liked his harsh crackdowns on Palestinians.

Mitzna refused during the campaign and again Wednesday to join a coalition government with Sharon. That defiance no longer makes sense. A government that includes Labor is likely to be stronger than a Likud-led administration dependent on far-right parties that oppose any peace talks with Palestinians. Surveys before the elections showed that few Israelis expected a Sharon government to serve a full four-year term; after all, Tuesday's balloting was the fourth national election since 1996. The Shinui Party, which campaigned against privileges given to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, grew from six seats to 15 and its leader pressed Labor to join a coalition government.

It would be easier for the Bush administration to work with a more moderate government that agrees on the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, as Sharon says he does.

Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a good deal in negotiations nearly three years ago, but Arafat walked away. Palestinian attacks on Israelis began soon after, and Sharon trounced Barak and the Labor Party at the polls. With the latest Sharon victory, other Arab nations would profit from following the lead of Egypt and Jordan in formally recognizing Israel's right to exist. That is a necessary condition for a Middle East peace, and there is no longer any point in waiting for Sharon to leave.

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