Tense waiting game

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2001, 12:00am

To a backdrop of Hamas suicide bombing threats on the day he assumes power, Israel's new Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, takes office today. In cities and border crossings, security forces are out in unprecedented numbers. Months before his landslide victory in last month's elections, the Likud leader poured petrol on the flames of simmering Palestinian anger by his provocative high-profile visit to the Temple Mount when it was the subject of intense friction during faltering peace negotiations. Peace, in the true meaning of the term, has been off the agenda ever since.

The world will hold its breath to see how the man described by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger as the most dangerous politician in the Middle East settles in as leader of a government of national unity.

Off the agenda are the rejected offers of Palestinian sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem, which cost his predecessor Ehud Barak the premiership. All negotiation is out until violence stops. But if calm is restored, there are signs the 'bulldozer' who destroyed 2,000 Arab homes and created 16,000 refugees is capable of some restraint.

With a majority of 68 in the 120-member Knesset, holding together a coalition will be one of his lesser challenges. Even so, there is every likelihood of dissent. Arab unity, on the other hand, is guaranteed against an Israeli leader more hated than any other.

But Mr Sharon has backed off from the party line rejecting Palestinian statehood, indicating it might be possible, subject to security interests and demilitarisation. Provided he does not sanction further Jewish settlements in occupied territory, he may be able to offer a basis for renewed talks.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is a realist and knows this is the man he must deal with. Mr Sharon, equally, faces intense global pressure to get the peace process back on track. He will not be the first leader elected to office on uncompromising terms only to bend to political reality and the responsibility of power. The people of both nations are hungry for peace, without compromise; the alternatives are too terrible to contemplate.