Thursday 30 January 2003

Now Sharon can do just what he likes

Now we may get to see the true face of Ariel Sharon. His crushing victory in the early hours of yesterday morning has given the Israeli people, and the wider world, a chance at last to see what this man really wants.

For not only has Sharon become the first incumbent Israeli prime minister since the 1980s to be re-elected, he has been handed a triple mandate: he, his Likud party and the wider "national camp" have all triumphed. Commanding nearly 70 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli right is now free to do what it likes, unfettered by the need to compromise with the dovish left. For two years it had to share power in a "national unity" government with Labour; now it can be true to itself.

Except Sharon seems oddly bashful about seizing his moment to break free. "Today is not the time for celebrations - no celebrations," he insisted, as he sought to hush cheering supporters at Likud headquarters. It turns out the man they once called "the bulldozer" is fearful of his newly acquired might.

The PM wants instead to return to the previous set-up, ruling jointly with Labour. The Likud faithful booed that idea when Sharon mentioned it, while loyalists of the former, and would-be future, premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, are also in no hurry to reach out. "There is nothing illegitimate about a nationalist government," said one.

So why is Sharon so anxious to cooperate rather than rule alone? Has he genuinely become more moderate than his party, growing into the wise, calm grandfather of his TV commercials? Was the outgoing leftist Yossi Sarid right when he said that the Likud always get frightened and "look for partners to save them from themselves"? Or, a tad more cynically, does Sharon simply want a Labour fig leaf to cover his still-hawkish intentions? The coalition negotiations now under way should give us the answer.

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