Sharon's Vow for Israeli Control of Jerusalem Dims Peace Hopes

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Ariel Sharon touches Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Ariel Sharon may be talking about pursuing a "realistic peace" and Yasser Arafat may have vowed to work with whomever Israeli voters chose to lead them, but the prospects for a peace agreement took a steep dive Tuesday. After dispatching Prime Minister Ehud Barak by a record 19-point margin in an election whose 60 percent turnout was a record low, Sharon made a victory speech in which he called for peace, but also insisted that there could be no territorial concessions to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. And following the logic of the last year of negotiations, that message essentially puts the kibosh on a peace agreement. But Sharon isn't looking for a comprehensive agreement; he plans to pursue open-ended interim agreements with the Palestinians in the belief that a final agreement is beyond both sides at the present time.

There's little incentive, on the face of it, for Yasser Arafat to do business with Sharon. After all, six months ago he was sitting opposite an Israeli leader bargaining over ways of sharing Jerusalem and over the size of his prospective state — and if he was politically unable to accept Barak's proposals, it's hard to see him embracing Sharon as a negotiating partner. Arafat may be more inclined to simply wait out the Sharon tenure, and even hasten its end by raising the level of political crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Prospect of a shaky coalition

Sharon has 45 days to cobble together a governing coalition out of Israel's fractious parliament. Not surprisingly, his first move was to invite Barak to join him in a unity government, but Barak's resignation as Labor party leader following his humiliating defeat diminishes the chances of the divided party accepting the junior role in government. That leaves the prime minister–elect to forge a shaky center-right coalition that could lose its wheels at any moment — a prospect that may encourage both Arafat and Labor party politicians with leadership ambitions to simply wait for the collapse.

And of course Sharon's own party hadn't ever intended to make him prime minister when it made him caretaker leader following the resignation of Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was the more popular choice among the party's rank and file, and he made it clear that he'll mount a challenge for the leadership for the next general election. Indeed, Tuesday's election was something of an interim affair — the first-ever direct election for prime minister without an election for a new parliament, a scenario that makes governing all the more different. In many ways, the constitutional provision that allows for such elections is more like giving the electorate an opportunity to participate in a no-confidence vote in the government. And that's what Tuesday's poll amounted to. Barak's supporters stayed away in droves and a number even voted for Sharon, less out of conviction than as an act of protest against Barak's handling of the peace process and the intifada. Even if they believe Sharon will be a more effective manager of Israel's security in the short term, they'll also probably recognize that he's even less likely than Barak to resolve the political crisis that imperils Israel's security. And it's those peace-minded swing voters that may be in for the biggest hangover after this week's changing of the guard.