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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 06:25 GMT
Q&A: Next steps for Sharon

Following the landslide victory for right-winger Ariel Sharon in Israel's prime ministerial elections, BBC News Online looks at the weeks ahead as he faces the tough task of forming a government amid a renewal of violence on the ground.

What will Ariel Sharon do next?

He is under pressure from two fronts.

He has to form a government within 45 days or face early presidential and parliamentary elections.

He must also deal with an escalation of violence in the Palestinian territories. This unrest struck at the heart of Israel on Wednesday with a bus attack on a group of soldiers and civilians.

Mr Sharon has dispatched envoys to Washington to present his stance on a potential resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. He says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat must act to stop violence if talks are to resume.

Sharon's peace line
Jerusalem will remain undivided
No peace talks as long as violence persists
No more West Bank land - of which the Palestinians control 42% - will be transferred

Ehud Barak will remain prime minister in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.

Who are his allies?

Mainly the right wing, religious and Russian immigrant parties.

These include Israel's prominent ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which propped up Mr Barak's minority government but often clashed with secular cabinet colleagues.

However, these parties don't command a majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

What are his options?

Mr Sharon is conducting talks with the opposition Labour party in an attempt to form a national unity coalition. This would give the government its best chance of surviving the rest of the Knesset's term, which ends in 2003.

If this fails, he could form a narrow right-wing and religious coalition, which would only have a small majority in parliament.

Where does this leave the Labour party?

A unity government may cause divisions within the ranks of Labour.

Mr Barak's decision to refuse the offer of the post of minister of defence and resign from his party may make coalition talks between Likud and Labour easier.

Mr Barak's image among his own party colleagues is severely tarnished. It has already been reported that the party was planning to exclude Mr Barak from its list of suggested ministers when it votes on whether or not to join the government.

A number of senior Labour politicians, such as Yossi Beilin, have said they will not join a coalition. But Shimon Peres, a contender to replace Mr Barak at the head of the party and the architect of the Oslo Peace Accords, favours a unity government.

One possible route into a national unity government for Labour would be to hand the leadership to Shimon Peres temporarily, until a new party leader is elected.

What next for the peace process?

Although the Israeli public voted in protest against Mr Barak's handling of negotiations with the Palestinians, they did not explicitly vote against the peace process.

Mr Sharon's campaign promises included bringing both security and peace, but he insists he will not talk to the Palestinians until their uprising - or intifada - ends.

Palestinian groups, however, insist the violence will continue.

He has, however, reached broad outlines with Labour about how to proceed with the peace process if a national unity government is formed.

The draft document talks of honouring previous peace agreements reached with the Palestinians provided they were ratified by parliament.

There is no mention of an eventual Palestinian state, but no new Jewish settlements will be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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