Sharon favoured in high-stakes poll

MANAMA (BAHRAIN) JAN. 28. Israel today went for crucial elections that will have a profound effect on the chances of hammering out a peace deal with the Palestinians in the coming months and years and could influence Israeli disposition towards Iraq.

Opinion polls show that the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon's Likud coalition is way ahead of its rivals. Mr. Sharon's right - wing coalition is expected to get 33 seats in the 120 members Knesset. But, despite expecting nearly 28 per cent of the seats, Likud's chances of forming a stable government that strikes a peace deal with the Palestinians may still prove elusive.

Analysts in Israel say that there are inherent problems in the Israeli electoral system that discourage emergence of stable governments.

Unlike countries such as Turkey, where only those parties that get more than 10 per cent of the seats can sit in the Parliament, Israel has no such criteria that filter out the smaller parties.

Consequently, the Knesset represents a variety of political groups that often has a single digit representation in the House.

Consequently, parties such as the Likud, in seeking stability have tended to join hands with the centrist Labour party that has traditionally had a prominent presence in the Knessset.

One view prevailing among political and academic circles in Israel is that Mr. Sharon is personally keen to form a national unity government with the Labour party and may prefer that arrangement over establishing a narrow right wing coalition government.

In joining hands with Labour, Mr. Sharon would have more room to revive peace talks, as a coalition with the centrist forces will help to insulate him from the pressure of extreme right-wingers that largely oppose a dialogue.

Mr. Sharon, sources say, is keen to hammer out a peace deal with the Palestinians, but on his own terms.

Mr. Sharon's desire to revive negotiation, sources say, is partly driven by his personal ambition to go down in history as a pragmatic peacemaker who did not compromise Israeli security.

Without revisiting the Oslo process, Mr. Sharon, in case the election results go in his favour, may be inclined to keep the "Quartet

plan" that aims to progressively realise the formation of fully independent Palestinian State by 2005 as his reference point for negotiations.

The Israeli leader, in the likely eventuality of reassuming premiership is, however, expected to take two key steps. First, dismissive of Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Mr. Sharon would like to negotiate with a new generation of Palestinian leaders.

Analysts in Israel do not rule out the possibility that to achieve this goal, Mr. Sharon may take the extreme step of expelling Mr. Arafat from the West Bank.

Second, he may go slow on raising a 350 km. long security wall that would physically separate the Palestinian West Bank from the Israeli mainland.

This is because Mr. Sharon is well aware that in case the wall is raised, it would mean a virtual declaration of a de facto border.

Such a step could further dissuade Palestinians from coming to the negotiating table and could intensify suicide bombings that have already taken a heavy toll of Israeli lives.

Mr. Sharon's plans could, however, get upset, in case the Labour party does not finish second in the electoral contest.

Opining polls show that the secular Shinui party may get the second spot ahead of Labour.

But the Likud may find it difficult to work out a coalition with the Shinui party, because the Shinui leadership has declared that it would not participate in any political arrangement with the right wing Shas party that is part of the Likud camp.

The Labour Party has also declared that it will not participate in government with the Likud this time.

But with a possible war with Iraq looming and the Israeli public demanding political stability, the chances are that the Labour Party and even the Shinui may show flexibility and join government.

Some Israeli commentators also do not rule out mini-splits in the Labour and Shinui camps as the date for government formation nears.

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