Ariel Sharon was elected Israel’s fifth prime minister in less than six years Tuesday in a vote of extremes: The 26-point margin of victory was the widest in any election since Israel’s independence in 1948, and the 62 percent turnout was the lowest in that time.
The ascendancy of the “hawk of hawks” elicited pessimism from many writers. An op-ed in the Guardian of London typified the hyperbole: “Israel, by a massive landslide, turned to a man who has spent two decades as an international byword for extremism—a global hate-figure—and elevated him to the country’s top job. … For anyone who wishes peace for that nation and its neighbours, today is among the darkest of days.” The Jordanian paper Al-Aswaq declared, “Extremism rules Israel today,” and for the Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent, “The Middle East has entered a new and dangerous era.” A commentary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail fretted:
The world can only hope, albeit against hope, that Ariel Sharon will become for Israel in its dealings with Palestinians what Richard Nixon was for his country in opening doors to China. Nothing, alas, suggests that Israel’s new Likud prime minister sees himself as an Israeli Nixon. He has spent an entire career displaying unwavering truculence toward the Palestinians, and is reviled by them as a consequence. It would require a pirouette of staggering proportions for Mr. Sharon to do a Nixon.
Among Sharon’s defenders was the tabloid Sun of London, which proclaimed him the man of the moment: “More than ever, Israel needs a tough guy as its leader. You would, too, if you lived in a small country like Israel surrounded by hostile and undemocratic forces.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung would only concede, “The election of ‘bulldozer’ Ariel Sharon is not a disaster,” but an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post full-throatedly sang Arik’s praises:
The Jews, at this very dangerous moment in the history of their state, felt that they must elect a leader capable of saving them from destruction. … Sharon’s ascent to the Temple Mount will go down in history as the turning point in the salvation of the Jewish state, more than any of the other historical crossroads at the center of which he stood again and again, in tremendous issues related to the security, building and settlement of Israel.
Like many liberal papers, Britain’s Independent blamed Barak for his own downfall: “He is a political incompetent, the world’s worst glad-hander.” A Guardian writer declared, “He came across as arrogant and unfeeling, wholly unskilled in the necessary emolliences of vote-getting.” Le Monde of Paris called Barak’s downfall “a terrible waste,” and concluded, “Mr. Barak lacked political talent, not historical vision. Mr. Sharon’s success is that of demagoguery over the sense of history.” The Jordan Times said Barak’s 11th-hour apology for the deaths of 13 Arab Israelis last October, “too little, too late.” It was, “a delayed, inadequate, last-ditch attempt to gain a handful of votes, after he had consistently alienated, marginalised and abused over the past four months more than one million Arab citizens of Israel.”
Toward the end of his concession speech, Barak made what was apparently an unexpected announcement that he will resign his Knesset seat and leave his position as chair of the Labor Party. Barak’s departure will hinder Sharon’s hopes of forming a national unity government, since the Labor Party may be too distracted by leadership battles to focus on serious negotiations with Sharon’s Likud. That, in turn, increases the likelihood of Sharon forming a narrow right-wing government, because he faces several deadlines: If he is unable to form a government by March 30, Israel must hold another prime ministerial election by April 15. Even if he successfully forms a coalition, he needs to pass a budget by March 31—otherwise the Knesset is dissolved and new elections for both Knesset and prime minister are held within 90 days. (For a summary of the various deadlines, see this story in Ha’aretz.) Sharon needs no excuses to move quickly—he knows that his Likud archrival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised to contest the next election. The Globe and Mail’s op-ed pointed out: “Mr. Sharon is 72. His Maker or the vagaries of Israeli politics could sweep him away before he leaves his mark as prime minister.” A satirical column in Ha’aretz advised Sharon: “At your age, you can be satisfied with one term in office, which means you can do what’s good for the state and not what’s good for you to get re-elected.”