'Israel Saw the Election as Pointless'

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What's next for Israel now that Ariel Sharon has trounced Ehud Barak?

It's not clear. Sharon invited Barak to join him in a unity government, but Barak resigned as Labor party leader in his concession speech, and it's not clear whether the party will agree to join Sharon in power. Even without a unity government, Sharon may be able to create a very narrow center-right coalition government. Where that would leave the peace process is unclear.

There has already been contact between Sharon and Arafat's people, and while there's little information about what transpired in those meetings, they certainly weren't disastrous. But it's not clear what Sharon could do on that front, particularly if he's governing in coalition with right-wing parties who are not just opposed to Barak's handling of the peace process, but to the peace process itself.

What was the mood on election day?

Not very enthusiastic. There were very few people out campaigning, which was a reflection of the fact that a lot of people are angry that they have to vote at all. Many Israelis didn't want to vote for either of these guys. They didn't want to vote for Barak because of his handling of the peace process and the intifada, believing that he made too many concessions and didn't handle Arafat well. But they also didn't want to vote for Sharon, because they don't believe he has the answers. Many people who voted for Sharon did that just to stop what Barak has been doing. Even Sharon's own supporters acknowledge that violence will continue once he's elected; they just say it won't be quite as bad — not exactly a ringing endorsement.

An even higher number of Israelis are angry because they know this election is unlikely to really change the political situation, and they expect they'll have to go back to the polls soon. Whoever wins will have to come up with a coalition government from within the same Knesset. If Sharon can't get a unity government with Labor, he'll have to create a government whose base will be so narrow that it could fall at any time over any party's funding demands. So there's a widespread feeling of discontent among voters, because they see this election as pointless. And that makes them angry.

Was the turnout poor?

It was abysmal by Israeli standards. Only 60 percent of eligible voters voted. This is not America, where that would be an OK turnout. Israeli elections usually see a turnout of at least 75 percent of eligible voters, so this turnout is devastatingly low. And the one who suffered most from that is Barak, because a lot of his supporters stayed away to express their disgust with his performance. Talking to voters, I found few people excited about voting for Barak, but not a lot more excited about voting for Sharon. Most people are pretty dour as they go to the ballot box.

You're in the Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth, as we speak, where voters who backed Barak last time stayed away. How did they see the election?

When the 13 Israeli Arabs were shot dead by police last October during a protest over the intifada, it was obvious that this would be an inevitable problem for Barak. And he didn't handle it well at all. He and his police minister backed the police chief in Galilee, who is very unpopular with local Arabs, and the police handling of the incident. He opposed a public inquiry into the shooting, although he later conceded to one. Ten days ago he finally expressed sorrow over the shooting, although he didn't apologize. So all his efforts to get Israeli Arabs to vote for him have failed. There's a feeling on the street of wanting to punish Barak, and Israeli Arabs are not prepared to accept that they should always vote for the candidate who will be best for the Palestinians on the West Bank. This time they feel they had their own statement to make. As odious as they may find Sharon, they wanted to send a message of protest against being shot at by the police.