Voting against

January 30, 2003

ISRAEL'S ELECTIONS this week made it clear that there aren't any good ideas on finding a way toward peace. Turnout was down; the mood was pessimistic; the strong showing by Ariel Sharon's Likud Party means little will change. The conflict with the Palestinians will drag on.

Mr. Sharon himself was in a less than celebratory frame of mind yesterday. The current situation is untenable, unacceptable. But the alternatives, as he and many others see them, are all worse.

Polls show that Israelis backed the Labor Party platform of dismantling the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, but repudiated the party itself because it was seen as too soft on Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. So the settlements will remain.

A significant minority turned against the Orthodox parties, giving their votes to the anti-religious Shinui party. That means Mr. Sharon must either turn to the left, and look for secular partners in a coalition government, or to the right, aligning himself with the increasingly unpopular religious groupings. He won't be able to strike a balance. Labor, moreover, has vowed not to participate but to remain in opposition.

Either way, building a Cabinet will be a daunting task, and keeping one together for any length of time will likely prove impossible.

This is bad news for Israelis and Palestinians. It's also bad news for the United States.

Why? Hasn't this conflict been going on for generations? Why, now, should there be any particular cause for concern?

The answer to that, of course, is Iraq.

Certainly, no one believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved overnight. And it's more than a little disingenuous to argue that the United States should straighten it all out before moving on to the problem of Saddam Hussein - because that might mean it would never move on to the problem of Saddam Hussein, in his or anyone else's lifetime.

But - American credibility in the Muslim world, which is low enough as it is, sinks lower with every Palestinian killed. As long as a Sharon government appears to have American backing and appears to have no interest in working toward peace, the United States is going to be sorely pressed to win friends among Iraqis and their neighbors. It's as simple as that.

Washington has to start thinking about diplomacy in the Middle East. It has to be seen as moving in the right direction and showing a genuine interest in the plight of Muslims. The best way to advance American interests - and help Israel at the same time, incidentally - would be to resurrect, and refashion, the peace process. Sitting back and following Mr. Sharon's lead is asking for trouble, on a very large scale.

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