The Day of the Hawk


Israelis have turned to a man of the past to lead them into an uncertain future, choosing Ariel Sharon over Ehud Barak as prime minister in an election that was less an endorsement of the victor than a repudiation of the loser.

How long and effective Sharon’s tenure will be depends on how stable a legislative coalition he can cobble together. A broad-based national unity government, which he says he favors, would have to include representatives of the center-left, like former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Barak himself has apparently chosen to quit politics for now, and participation by moderates in the new government might help restrain Sharon’s notorious inclination toward over-aggressiveness should the Palestinians carry out their promise of intensified militancy.

But there are limits to what moderates could do in a Sharon government. This week’s election was not so much a referendum on the peace process as a plebiscite on violence. The Palestinian uprising, now in its fifth month, has deepened that sense of insecurity among Israelis that is never far below the surface. Barak labored throughout the violence of recent months to keep the peace process alive, something many Israelis interpreted as weakness. Many came to see Barak not as a bold statesman but as someone Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was playing for a dupe, especially after Arafat scorned Barak’s offer of unprecedented concessions that would have given the Palestinians nearly all they wanted.


The Palestinian perspective is far different. They are an oppressed people who have endured more than 33 years of occupation and humiliation, and many now believe that only violence can bring them independence, nationhood and dignity. Barak’s approach offered a different and more certain route to those goals. Arafat’s failure to grasp the significance of the offer and seize the moment was another blunder in his long history of political miscalculations.

Now the Palestinians have to contend with Sharon. Some welcome this, believing that the uncompromisingly hard line the incoming prime minister is expected to follow will win them further international sympathy. They may be right. But international sympathy won’t get Palestinians the statehood and independence they long for and deserve. That can come only through good faith and give-and-take negotiations with Israel. That chance has probably passed for now. Nervous Israelis have turned to Sharon, frustrated Palestinians are stuck with Arafat. It is not a political match that calls for rejoicing.