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Western Press Review: Israeli Election Preoccupies Commentators

Prague, 7 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today concentrates heavily on conservative leader Ariel Sharon's landslide win in Israel's election for prime minister yesterday. Many analysts see the election result as much a vote against the perceived soft-edged incumbent Ehud Barak as a vote for hard-line Sharon. Others urge Sharon to push for a national unity government in Israel in order to pursue the peace process.


An editorial in Britain's Times daily says: "The real issue in this election [was] the direction and style by which Mr. Barak conducted the peace process." It says that Barak's offer to release 94 percent of the West Bank to Palestine and to grant a measure of autonomy over east Jerusalem "went well beyond any formula outlined by any previous Israeli administration."

The editorial also says that Israelis opted for Sharon because "the immediate threat to their personal security was plainly a more relevant concern than the pursuit of a political dialogue" with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It writes: "Peace and realism now need to be reconciled" -- a combination, it believes, that requires the formation of a government of national unity.


Jonathan Freedland warns in a commentary in Britain's Guardian daily that, in his words, "for anyone who wishes peace for [Israel] and its neighbors, today is among the darkest of days." He writes that Israelis, in electing Sharon, risk alienating Western allies and potential investors, and adds: "The election of a leader who does not believe in peace takes Israel one step closer to the alternative: war."

Freedland lays partial blame for the outcome on Barak, writing that he "may have been a masterful soldier, but he was an appalling politician."


Two French newspapers carry news analyses of Sharon's triumph. In the national daily Liberation, Alexandra Schwartzbrod cites an Israeli television commentator who said last night: "This is not a victory. This is a knock-out." Writing from Jerusalem, Schwartzbrod says that, "given the magnitude of Barak's defeat, he is not in a good position to respond [to Sharon's offer to participate in a national unity government]."

According to the analyst, yesterday's election marked "the lowest voter participation in Israel's history." She says that's due in part "to the lack of enthusiasm evoked by both candidates [and] especially to the failure to vote by most Arab Israelis, who constitute 13 percent of the electorate and voted 95 percent for Barak in 1999." The Israeli Arabs, Schwartzbrod says, "have not forgiven [Barak] for the killing of 13 of their brethren in October," soon after the current Intifada began.


In its (unsigned) analysis, the influential provincial daily Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace doubts that Sharon will be able to form a government of national unity which will include Labor Party leaders like Barak and Shimon Peres, supporters of the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians denounced by Sharon. Instead, the paper says, Sharon is likely to seek support from the Israeli right in order to attain a 61-vote majority in the 120-member Israeli parliament.

"Above all," the paper says, "Sharon will have little time to decide on which option to adopt. He must form a government before 31 March, the deadline for voting on Israel's budget for 2001." If the budget is not adopted by then, the analysis points out, "Israel's laws call for the automatic dissolution of the Knesset (parliament) and new elections both for the parliament and for prime minister within 90 days." That's why, the paper suggests, Sharon's Likud Party rival, former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, decided not to run in yesterday's election: "Netanyahu," it says, "is simply waiting for what he believes will be the inevitable dissolution of the Knesset, in the short or medium term, in order to return to power."


Bernardo Valli in a commentary in today's edition of the Italian left-of-center daily la Repubblica says: "The election of [Sharon] had been expected. But the size of his victory was surprising." It adds: "By voting massively for the ex-general, the visible incarnation of their more intransigent impulses, the Israelis have made the road to a solution of the Mideast drama even more tortuous."


An editorial in the Dutch social-democratic daily de Volkskrant says: "In electing Ariel Sharon the electorate has clearly expressed its desire for security and an end to violence. This is what Sharon promised in the election campaign. [Sharon] is regarded as tough and above all as indomitable. In a worst-case scenario," the paper's editorial continues, "this may lead to conflicts. In a more favorable scenario, he may prove to be a pragmatist capable of negotiating with the Arabs because both parties know very well that they are committed to a settlement."


An editorial in the English-language daily Jerusalem Post says: "Though the world may interpret the Israeli electorate's choice as a rejection of peace, the voters themselves disagree." The paper cites in support of that judgement a recent poll indicating that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Israelis believe that "in order to reach a peace agreement, Israel should be less conciliatory with the Palestinians."

The editorial goes on to note that 53 percent of Israelis believed Sharon was better able than Ehud Barak to advance the peace process. It concludes by saying that the challenge of ending the violence gripping the region is "inseparable from the challenge of unifying the nation behind a new approach to peace to replace the one the public has so soundly rejected."


An editorial in the respected Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz says: "Sharon's prime task is to follow up negotiations to achieve a settlement with the Palestinians begun by his predecessors, including Benjamin Netanyahu, a Likud member, who signed the Hebron and Wye agreements." It adds: "Sharon has two choices: to continue discussions which were broken off 10 days ago in Taba, Egypt, and to strive for a peaceful settlement, or to set out on an entirely new path and thus to fulfill the gloomy prophecies of his rivals."


Nearly every major U.S. daily gives space on its editorial page to the Israeli election. In the Washington Post, columnist Jim Hoagland focuses on Sharon's' crushing defeat of Barak, saying the outgoing premier "bears responsibility for not hitching his keen sense of history to an equally strong sense of politics." Still, Hoagland writes, Barak leaves a worthy legacy: a sense of "the place in the world that Israel can -- and should -- occupy by exercising real moral leadership."

He adds: "Arab states will lose more than they gain from renewed confrontation and unwarranted demonization of Israel. Their failure to keep pace with global change and to embrace democracy will become clear."


An editorial in the New York Times says that the task facing Sharon in the days ahead is to show that he can "combine his customary toughness with enough flexibility to avoid aggravating an already combustible situation in Israel and across the Middle East." The editorial goes on to urge Israel's Labor Party to accept Sharon's offer to join a broad national unity government, adding that "by accepting his offer, Labor may be able to exert a moderating influence."


The Wall Street Journal Europe addresses the election outcome in two separate comments. An editorial applauds the almost simultaneous ascension of Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush as "a unique opportunity to get Middle East policy back on a more rational footing." It says that relations between the two leaders may benefit from their established personal friendship, saying: "The notoriously untraveled president actually knows Mr. Sharon, having once taken a helicopter tour of Israel guided by the prime minister-elect. He reportedly described the experience as one of the most moving of his life."


Bret Stephens writes in an accompanying Wall Street Journal Europe commentary: "Mr. Sharon is Israel's best-known quantity, a man whose fundamental outlook has remained impervious to nearly every change in political fashion." Stephen says that in voting for Sharon, Israelis were rejecting a peace process in which things would get worse before they got better. He adds: "Even Israelis who had long nurtured suspicions of Mr. Sharon were plainly disgusted [with Barak]."


An editorial in the Boston Globe urges the prompt formation of a national unity government, calling this "the best chance to keep Sharon from instigating more calamities" like Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon. The editorial says that although Barak has apparently declined Sharon's offer to serve in a national unity cabinet, "it is now up to Sharon to offer the moderates acceptable terms, and it will be up to those moderates to protect Israel and its neighbors from the intemperate impulses that have marked too much of Sharon's previous career."


Analyst Amos Perlmutter, in a commentary in the conservative Washington Times daily, calls the election "more of a Barak loss than a Sharon victory." He adds: The misdeeds and errors of three individuals are responsible for Gen. Sharon's election: Yasser Arafat's violence, Mr. Barak's zigzags between diplomacy and retaliation, and Benjamin Netanyahu's decision not to run for prime minister."

(RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele, Dora Slaba and Joel Blocker contributed to this report.)