Bleak prospects

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 February, 2001, 12:00am

If his personal history is any guide, the landslide victory which will make Ariel Sharon Israel's fifth prime minister in less than six years suggests that an always-elusive Middle East peace is further away than ever.

Throughout his long career, this former general and cabinet minister has been among the most hawkish of Israeli leaders, deeply suspicious of the Palestinians and ready to apply maximum force against them. As a combatant in all five of Israel's wars against the Arabs, Mr Sharon sometimes initiated fatal blows against real or suspected foes with excessive zeal, and earned official rebukes from his own government.

The fear is that, as prime minister, he will bring similarly tough tactics to peacemaking and thus bring his nation, and the region, continued violence. Mr Sharon rejects compromises offered by his predecessor, Ehud Barak, and promises to give the Palestinians peace terms much less generous than the ones they have already turned down.

For example, Mr Barak said he would return Gaza and about 95 per cent of the occupied West Bank to Palestinian control, plus part of Jerusalem as their capital. But Mr Sharon says 42 per cent is enough and vowed again yesterday that Jerusalem would remain Israel's undivided capital 'for eternity'. And recently he called Yasser Arafat, the man he would face across the negotiating table, a murderer and a liar.

Israelis grew disenchanted with Mr Barak after his unprecedented and, to some, shocking peace offer - especially as it was not only rejected but led to a Palestinian uprising, even if that was triggered by Mr Sharon. Although about 90 per cent of those killed in this fighting have been Arabs, most voters apparently want an even firmer hand in charge.

Despite Mr Sharon's decisive personal victory, he will face a sharply divided parliament and could head a shaky coalition government. This combination of political weakness and aggressive negotiation seems guaranteed to prevent progress on the peace front. But it could bring Israel more death and violence - and much less real security.