Moderate Breeze in Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is no stranger to controversy, but even he has been flustered by the revelation of a financial scandal involving a reported $1.5-million loan to his sons by a South African friend. Though Sharon may ride out the brouhaha, he no longer appears as invincible as he did a few weeks ago. Israel -- and perhaps even Sharon -- will be better off if moderates in parliament are strengthened in the Jan. 28 elections, which could lead to a coalition government offering new steps toward peace rather than just brute force and more settlements.

Extremist parties are already worried about their postelection prospects. Sharon told New York Times columnist William Safire that he would create a centrist coalition government, one that does not embrace the far-right-wing parties. To shed the small rightist parties and still gain the 61 votes he needs to form a government, Sharon would have to woo the Labor Party, currently led by the dovish ex-general Amram Mitzna. But Mitzna says Labor will not join a unity government, even though the party was in Sharon's Cabinet for 20 months, until it bolted over a dispute on funding for settlements. If Mitzna sticks to that position, Israel could end up holding another round of elections.

What has rattled both Labor and the far right is the meteoric rise of the secular Shinui party, which espouses free-market reforms and an end to the exemption for military service enjoyed by ultra-Orthodox men and women and opposes settlement activity and religious control over Israeli institutions.

The Shinui party, led by former television commentator Tommy Lapid, has benefited from widespread public disgust with corruption in both Labor and Likud. Polls indicate that Shinui could go from its current six seats to as many as 17 in the next parliament.

Shinui's aim is to push Labor and Sharon's Likud to join Shinui in a coalition that excludes religious parties. Even if Sharon remains prime minister, such a coalition would free him from small religious parties demanding to settle ever more perilous and taunting locations in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian leaders have already called a temporary cease-fire in the open hope of encouraging moderate voters and hurting Sharon. The tactic may well backfire. If secularists do triple their seats in parliament, however, a new coalition would have the freedom to reopen direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

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