Sharon Trounces Barak

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ENRIC MARTI/AP

Israeli military medics go to the polls

The pre-election opinion polls were accurate. Ariel Sharon humiliated Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Israel's election, Tuesday, with Israeli television reporting that the hawkish Likud leader romped home by margin of 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent. But those figures hide the fact that a massive stay-at-home by those who had propelled Barak into the top job less than two years ago created the lowest turnout in Israeli history.

To be sure, it was an election lost by Barak more than it was won by Sharon. And while the low turnout is certainly an expression of deep disillusion with Barak's peacemaking efforts, it's also a sign that many Israelis viewed Tuesday's poll as nothing more than an interim election — The Likud leader inherits the same parliament that brought down Barak, and unless he's able to beat expectations by persuading Barak's party to join him in a unity government, he'll be forced to field a minority coalition that could collapse at any point.

Although Sharon is likely to jam the brakes on the frenzied peace talks of the weeks leading up to the election, his victory is a symptom of the failure of the peace process, rather than its cause. The Likud leader had campaigned against what he saw as Ehud Barak's reckless handling of negotiations with the Palestinians, and has made no secret of the fact that he plans a major rewind of the peace process — his message to the Palestinians has been to disregard any offers made by the Barak government. Rather than trying to finalize a peace agreement, Sharon has indicated that instead he'll pursue open-ended interim understandings with the Palestinians, believing that a comprehensive peace is unattainable right now. But like all Israeli leaders, he recognizes that some form of peace process remains inevitable.

A howl of anguish

The irony of Sharon's victory, of course, is that most Israelis oppose his thinking — the fact that a man so widely loathed in Israeli society could be elected prime minister is a sign of Israel's deep disillusion with the peace process. Sharon didn't win as much as Barak lost. Too many of the prime minister's natural supporters stayed away from the polls, in protest over his handling of negotiations and the Palestinian uprising. Early polls indicate a turnout as low as one in three eligible voters, reflecting the usually active electorate's distaste for the choice it faced. The result, if anything, reflects a massive protest against Barak by his own constituency, who'd been left depressed and confused by the events of the past six months. A protest, perhaps, or simply a howl of anguish.

Barak's goose may actually have already been cooked last October, when Israeli police fired on Israeli-Arab youths protesting Sharon's visit to the precincts of Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque — "peace" candidates find it almost impossible to win Israeli elections without the votes of the 1 million-strong Israeli-Arab community, and last year's shootings left that community unwilling to go the polls to save Barak.

Sharon, of course, will face an uphill battle to cobble together a parliamentary majority, and no one will be surprised if Israelis are back at the polls within a year. And that election could see comebacks by everyone from Shimon Peres or Barak to Benjamin Netanyahu. Because there's no such thing as being politically dead in Israel — until three days before the election, polls were showing that three-time loser Peres had a better chance than Barak of beating Sharon, who enjoyed a huge lead despite being held responsible for two decades of Israeli misery in Lebanon, not to mention the Israeli military's findings over his culpability in the case of massacres of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut in 1982. Sharon's own popularity in this year's polls was eclipsed by that of Netanyahu, despite his having been hounded out of office by an electorate all but holding its nose some 18 months ago. And of course the man they elected by a near landslide to replace him was the same Ehud Barak they have now resoundingly rejected.

Morbid symptoms

The morbid symptoms of Israel's inconclusive electoral system are reflective of the Jewish state's increasingly fractious makeup. But while Israeli politicians have their philosophical differences, the extent to which those interfere with their political choices is limited. National security has always been the organizing principle of Israeli politics, and the differences among politicians must be read against their common security concerns. The last four prime ministers Israelis have elected have been senior military officers, two from each side of the political divide. Those men differed profoundly on strategy and tactics, but they share the same core concerns. For example, the idea of ordering Israeli soldiers in the West Bank to systematically break the arms and legs of Palestinian demonstrators is probably beyond even Sharon, right now; yet those were the precise orders issued in 1988 by Yitzhak Rabin, more commonly remembered as the architect of the peace process.

Israelis have voted against Barak — or more correctly, refrained from voting for him — out of fear of where he was leading them. But he has warned that what they're reacting to is the inevitable price of peace, which, the past six months have shown, will come at a price far higher than that assumed by most Israelis. But despite recoiling from Barak, Israeli voters are unlikely to accept the inevitable deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian relations under Sharon. And that will probably push Israel's voters back toward Barak's party in a year or two, and the cycle will begin anew. Good thing Arafat doesn't face reelection, because then the peace process would really be in trouble.