First things first
Before Sharon is able to move at all, he'll have to form a government no mean feat at the best of times in Israel's fractious parliament, and with the added disadvantage that the balance of seats in the Knesset remains unchanged (Tuesday's election is solely to select a prime minister). Tabulate the combined representation of all the parties supporting Sharon, and he's still short of a majority. He may be forced to spend up to two months cobbling together a unity coalition, or else he'll have to opt to lead a minority government that would be unlikely to survive to the end of its term. In other words, Sharon will be distracted by domestic concerns for some time before getting down to business with the Palestinians.
So what's a hawk to do?
Sharon made his reputation as a wild man in his military days, and later as an opposition leader with virtually no experience in managing Israel's complex political and diplomatic situation, both regional and global. But power, particularly when it comes in the diluted form that Sharon will likely inherit, is likely to curb his more aggressive instincts. Still, Sharon is a wily operator, and he plans to try and prove that he's more capable of making peace than Barak. Long-term observers of the region wouldn't be at all surprised if Sharon begins by making some dramatic gesture toward the Palestinians, such as lifting the closure of the West Bank and Gaza that has been in force throughout most of the current intifada. Indeed, as a longtime counterinsurgency warrior, his approach may be to shift Israeli strategy toward punishing Palestinian leaders rather than the entire Palestinian population, as a way of isolating them from their own supporters. And sending positive messages to the Palestinians, as well as the neighboring Arab regimes and Washington, would even help him consolidate his grip on power in the Knesset. After all, his enemies are painting him as a warmonger; his approach will be to cloak himself in the mantle of realistic peacemaker.
Sharon a peacemaker?
It's not a mask, either. Sharon may have been responsible for such disastrous military misadventures as Israel's invasion of Lebanon, but he's also proven himself capable of rising above his party's ideological concerns in the interests of nailing down peace deals. During his brief spell as Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign minister, for example, Sharon persuaded the reluctant prime minister to hand over most of the West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian control. His objective is not to stop the peace process altogether, but to be in control of it and drive hard bargains. While Barak had been weighing the Clinton plan to retreat from 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, Sharon is likely to offer short-term withdrawal from only another 13 percent of the West Bank, and invite the Palestinians to negotiate further. Rather than shutting down the process altogether, he's more likely to work to keep channels open and prevent himself being isolated as a hard-liner, which might ultimately doom him domestically.
But will the Palestinians deal with Sharon?
Arafat has insisted that he will continue negotiating with whomever Israelis choose to lead them, but the fact that he's been going through the motions of negotiating with Barak almost down to election day has been interpreted as the closest thing the Palestinian leader could do to campaign for his Israeli counterpart. As Sharon works to recast himself as a dove with claws, Arafat is faced with a strategic dilemma. While Bill Clinton was in the White House, Arafat's strategy was to compensate for the imbalance in power between himself and the Israelis by allowing (and even encouraging) political brushfires in the West Bank and Gaza, assuming that Washington would rush in to play fire brigade and earn him a few more concessions. But the Bush administration is likely to treat the region in a more hands-off fashion and, of course, Sharon may be a lot less sensitive to American sensibilities if confrontations escalate in the West Bank and Gaza. Which could still drag both sides back toward the violent strategic impasse of the late 1980s. Then again, despite the around-the-clock talks of recent weeks, they're not that far away from that right now.