Likud nearly doubled its tally of seats from 19 to 37, and fully 400,000 voters switched to the party since the parliamentary poll of 1999 making Ariel Sharon the first Israeli Prime Minister to be re-elected in a decade. In short, Likud scored a stunning victory. Labor, by contrast, suffered its worst defeat ever, dropping seven seats to 19 while the leftist Meretz plummeted from 10 seats to six.
To Arab politicians and conservative scholars alike, such statistics spell the death knell of Israel's `peace camp'. Avi Davis of the Los Angeles-based Freeman Centre for Strategic Studies triumphantly announced: "For the next 10 years, cognisant of the perils of Palestinian rejectionism, the Israeli people are likely to choose conservative governments to lead them". However, a closer look reveals nuances. Only 68.5% of the electorate voted--the lowest turnout in Israeli history. Nor did extreme right or religious parties do particularly well. The Sephardi orthodox Shas, for instance, fell from 17 to 10 seats. Michael Kleiner's noisy prosettler Herut was wiped out, while the anti-religious Shinui Party leapt from six seats to 15--just four behind once mighty Labor. Likud controls barely a third of the Knesset's 120 seats. It relies on others to rule. And here lies Sharon's dilemma. He could forge a commanding coalition of 69 seats with right-wing parties, but is scared of antagonising Washington. Politicians who espouse "transfer" would doom peace hopes for the foreseeable future.
Sharon far prefers a moderate, secular coalition of Likud, Labor and Shinui--72 seats in all. However, when Labor leader Amram Mitzna met Sharon on 3 February the Prime Minister refused outright his call for dismantling settlements in Gaza. "I went to listen", said Mitzna, "but Sharon closed the door and locked it". Sharon still hopes war in Iraq will force Labor into an `emergency government'.
Furthermore, a purely secular administration would break a long-standing Israeli tradition of including at least some religious parties at the Cabinet table. Not doing so would infuriate powerful lobbies. Shinui, the phenomenon of the election, is keen to join the winning team. But there is a problem. While Shinui trumpets economic liberalisation and curbs on the power of the religious bloc, it is agnostic on crucial questions of peace and security. In power, Shinui may split over the issue.
Israel's decisive swing to the right is undeniable. Labor, the party that virtually created the state of Israel, that for 29 years led every government after independence, narrowly avoided the ignominy of being relegated to third spot. Likud even out-polled Labor in Mitzna's home turf of Haifa. But was the rightward shift borne of enthusiasm or something else? Statistics cannot explain Sharon's enduring popularity. The economy is regressing, social disparities are widening, and 700 or more Israelis have died under Sharon's "security" regime. Rather, psychology won the day....