'Only Sharon' Is Choice of Many Israelis

Times Staff Writer

Late in an election contest that has seemed more like a two-month-long victory lap for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader was asked about the times when he has been written off as a failure, a disgrace, a spent force in Israel's political life.

"They buried me too soon," the white-haired ex-general crowed in triumph. "Or maybe not deep enough!"

At 74, Sharon is the consummate survivor, on the eve of yet another affirmation of his remarkable ability to overcome a tarnished and turbulent past. Heading into Tuesday's parliamentary elections, he has marshaled the solid support of the electorate, including many people who never thought they would cast a ballot for him.

Weekend polls indicated that Sharon's conservative Likud Party will easily win the largest share of seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, garnering as many as 34. Likud's chief rivals, the left-leaning Labor Party and the resolutely secular Shinui, were seen as fighting it out for a distant second, with each of them in the 18- or 19-seat range. Those results would leave Likud in a position to again form a coalition government with Sharon as prime minister.

But the expected outcome is viewed by many as not so much a victory for Sharon as a reflection of fear and despair in a country beset by internal woes and external threats. Israel's economy is mired in deep recession, and there is no end in sight to its bloody 2 1/2-year confrontation with the Palestinians.

The vote also comes against the backdrop of a looming U.S.-led war with Iraq, which could lash out at Israel with conventional or nonconventional weapons. Although such an attack is considered fairly unlikely, Israelis -- many of whom lived through Iraqi attacks during the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- have been refitting their gas masks, stocking up on emergency supplies and teaching their children about sealed "safe" rooms and nerve-gas antidotes.

In general, analysts say, voters don't hold Sharon responsible for the economic swoon or the impasse with the Palestinians, though he hasn't been able to make much headway against either during nearly two years in office. The prevailing sentiment is that without him, things would have been worse.

"We have only Sharon to vote for -- only Sharon," said Mordechai ben Lulu, a 75-year-old Moroccan-born barber, who was taking a breather in front of his hole-in-the-wall shop before getting back to trimming a customer's silver mustache. "It's true the situation has been difficult while he has been leading us, but we have no choice."

Sharon's 2001 victory over Labor's Ehud Barak marked a return from nearly two decades in the political wilderness.

Throughout a storied but controversy-plagued military career, he had a reputation for daring -- and ruthlessness. That reached its peak when, as defense minister, he was indirectly blamed for the 1982 massacre by Christian militiamen of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in two camps outside Beirut.

Forced from his post, he spent years in lesser government jobs. Even when he became foreign minister in 1998, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the near-universal view was that he would never rise to the top post.

Not only did he become prime minister, but once he was in office, his statesmanlike demeanor won respectful reviews from even some of his sharpest critics.

"If an Israeli who had spent the past two years in some remote corner of the Earth suddenly returned, he would surely rub his eyes in disbelief," said a profile last month in the newspaper Haaretz that described Sharon's now-friendly ties with leading leftist figures.

Still, the old Sharon is on plain display. Over the last two years, he has presided over some of the harshest Israeli measures against Palestinians, including a near-total reoccupation of the West Bank, coupled with a campaign of mass arrests of Palestinians and the "targeted killing" of dozens of militant leaders. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live under military curfews that hamper daily activity, from work to school to doctors' visits.

There have been indications that a second Sharon term could see an escalation of the military campaign in the Palestinian territories. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on radio Sunday that the government was considering seizing the entire Gaza Strip, rather than confining Israeli troops largely to pockets surrounding Jewish settlements.

Israelis, by and large, seem convinced that such steps are the only possible response to attacks and suicide bombings, by groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, that have claimed hundreds of lives.

"Whoever wants to live in peace with us: Welcome," said Sharon supporter Yitzhak Shimon, rearranging a pile of enormous deep-purple eggplants at his vegetable stall in Jerusalem's covered Mahane Yehuda market. "But the Torah says if someone tries to kill you, you may have to kill them."

Among Palestinians -- who almost universally revile Sharon, labeling him a war criminal -- there is dismay over the prospect of his reelection. Palestinians find it difficult to understand why the campaign of Labor candidate Amram Mitzna, who advocates the immediate restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians and a pullout of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza, failed to get off the ground.

"We are alive without a life to live, and Sharon is responsible," said Fauz abu Eid, whose 19-year-old son, Moussa, was killed by an Israeli sniper during an Israeli incursion into the West Bank city of Bethlehem last year. "These elections are not valid, because each party is competing over who is going to hit us harder to win more votes."

Inside Israel, though, the suffering of Palestinians is rarely a part of the political debate -- only the seemingly endless, and endlessly varied, threats posed by Palestinian attackers.

On Sunday, someone fitted a donkey with a harness of explosives that blew up as the animal wandered close to a road outside Bethlehem frequently used by Jewish settlers. The Israeli army said that the intended targets were probably soldiers or settlers but that there were no human casualties.

The security threat has been much on the minds of Israeli authorities as the vote approaches.

Mofaz, the defense minister, told the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday that about 1,500 soldiers will back up Israeli police in providing election-day security. The West Bank and Gaza were sealed off for the vote.

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