Sharon Faces the Challenge of Peace

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Israeli soldiers check the ID of a Palestinian woman at a checkpoint Ariel Sharon's coalition government has a broader base than any of its predecessors in more than a decade. Will it manage to stabilize the fractious frenzy of Israeli domestic politics?

Matt Rees: Certainly. One detail that will have a profound impact on the domestic political situation occurred even before the government was sworn in. Sharon pushed through a law to stop the practice of direct elections for prime minister. In the last two elections, Israelis had been able to vote separately for the party to represent them in parliament and for the candidate they wanted for prime minister. That had created tremendous political instability by fracturing the political landscape, because people could choose the party closest to their hearts rather than being forced to choose between the major parties in order to have their candidates elected prime minister. That made Israel very difficult to govern.

But the new law is simply a reversion to the old situation, which favors the two biggest parties, Likud and Labor. That upsets many Israelis, because the fact remains that many voters turned away from the bigger parties when given the option to vote for a party that more accurately expressed their concerns. So now, instead of paying more heed to those concerns, the bigger parties have engineered a situation where those people once again have no choice but to vote for Likud or Labor, or else face the prospect of wasting their vote.

Still, Sharon has drawn many of those small parties into his government. The new law means that if they try bring down his coalition, they would face new elections under the old system, which favors Likud and Labor. And that makes for a more stable coalition right away.

Sharon says he wants to pursue peace with the Palestinians, although he's made clear that he won't pick up where Barak left off. So what can we expect from the new government on this front?

Sharon is prepared to lift the closure of the West Bank and Gaza and allow Palestinians to return to jobs in Israel, but not until the violence stops. There are positive signs from the Palestinians that if Sharon takes a few confidence-building measures, that may help them climb down from the branch onto which they've hauled themselves. When Barak came to power, Arafat wanted tangible things, like the withdrawal of troops from some land and other small measures — he didn't want to have to go to Camp David and negotiate a final deal. And so with Sharon, too, Arafat may be more comfortable with a few concrete gestures that could serve as an incentive to try and tone down the intifada. It's not clear that he'll be able to do that, though — in the short term there may well be a spurt of violence. But in the long term, Sharon is more likely to pursue a phased agreement, which amounts to a final-status agreement, but not all at once, spreading the process over a number of years. Sharon has promised peace, and he's realistic enough to know that means a peace deal; that you can't bring peace simply by military means or while denying Palestinians a political settlement. But he wants to make the Palestinians prove themselves at every stage, by lowering the level of violence.

Foreign observers have warned that Arafat's Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse. Does Sharon believe Israel has an interest in helping it survive?

Very few Israeli leaders think that the inevitable anarchy that could result in the West Bank and Gaza if the PA collapsed would be beneficial to Israel. The Israelis are clearly frustrated with Arafat, but they also know that right now there's no one else to negotiate with.

What about the Palestinians themselves — are there signs that they plan to escalate the uprising?

Terror attacks by Hamas have escalated since Sharon's election, and not only have these not been condemned by Arafat, Israeli sources also believe they're done in the knowledge that the Palestinian Authority isn't going to come after the perpetrators. And shootings have continued in the West Bank, too. Arafat has to persuade lots of local guys whose power has grown considerably during the intifada that they should stop shooting people and allow negotiations to resume, and that's not going to be easy.

Presumably there's also pressure on Sharon for new tactics to cope with the intifada?

Sharon told the military leadership to bring in a plan, and they basically came to him with more or less the plan they currently have in operation. He told them to go away and come back with something new, which is what they're doing now.

The Israelis have dug trenches across roads around Jericho and Bir Zeit, cutting those places off in the belief that it stops people from moving bombs and weapons around. But those trenches obviously also stop an ambulance from reaching those areas now, too. There's an awareness, though, on the Israeli side that Arafat might want them to do something really bad that would bring international condemnation, and possibly even international intervention in the West Bank and Gaza. So it's very unlikely that they'll go storming into Palestinian towns. But the situation remains very volatile and very unpredictable.