Sharpening the talons

February 27, 2003

ARIEL SHARON has finished putting together a governing coalition in Israel that includes an extreme right-wing party and a rabidly extreme right-wing party. This won't do the cause of peace in the Middle East any good at all.

Mr. Sharon is evidently confident that he won't be getting pressure from Washington to ease up on the Palestinians, at least as long as Iraq remains the chief obsession of the White House, and for now he's thrown his lot in with the megahawks.

And just look at who they are.

The National Religious Party is in favor of expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, which is exactly the opposite of what Israel should be doing. The settlements are a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

Yet the National Union goes a step further. It advocates the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and the annexation of the land by Israel. That's not a formula for fruitful dialogue.

No one expects that the Sharon government will actually try to carry that out. But as long as his Likud Party remains married to the two right-wing parties (in a coalition that also includes the secular Shinui Party) don't look for progress anytime soon.

Is this a coalition based on principle? No. Mr. Sharon first attempted to entice the pro-peace Labor Party - which got clobbered in the elections - into rejoining the government. Labor, fearful that it would be a fig leaf of respectability, opted for opposition, so Mr. Sharon turned right instead.

There's nothing dishonest about that; it's politics. In fact, Mr. Sharon proved once again yesterday - his 75th birthday - that he's as wily and flexible as anyone. He sandbagged his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, and dumped him as foreign minister. That holds out the promise that someday - when the winds have changed - he'll do the same to his putative allies in the new Cabinet.

Until then, all of this is much worse news for the Bush administration than anyone is letting on - or perhaps realizes. To Arab eyes, there is no daylight between the White House and Mr. Sharon. It has not gone unnoticed that one of the neoconservative arguments for an American-led regime change in Iraq is that it would be good for Israel. But if Israel is going to be so militant, Iraq's Arab neighbors might well ask, what's in it for them?

The United States cannot expect Arab support in its campaign against Saddam Hussein if it refuses to recognize Arab concerns about Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. It couldn't be any clearer.

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