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 Monday, 27 January, 2003, 14:30 GMT
Q&A: Israeli elections
Israel went to the polls on 28 January to choose a leader and a parliament. While the incumbent Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as expected, retained power, he is likely to struggle to form a government.

What were the main issues?

Security is a key issue and dominates Israeli thinking probably more than any other. How to prevent further Palestinian suicide attacks and end the violence in Israel and the occupied territories, are questions every Israeli is asking.

The country's economy is in crisis, but this does not appear to have been a key factor influencing voters this time around.

Why did Ariel Sharon hang on to power?

Ariel Sharon won a landslide victory almost two years ago on a twin platform of peace and security. While he has failed to deliver on both, voters currently prefer the status quo to any of the alternatives on offer.

Mr Sharon favours a get-tough security agenda and refuses to talk peace with the Palestinians until the bloodshed ends. Much of his support comes from his uncompromising stance against Palestinian militants and the widely-held view of him as the leader who can best shield Israelis from harm.

Paradoxically, opinion polls regularly show that many Israelis support the Palestinian policy of Mr Sharon's main rival Labour's Amram Mitzna.

The Labour leader favours swift negotiations with the Palestinians, and if this fails, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, along with the dismantling of many of the Jewish settlements. He also advocates the building of an impassable barrier to keep the Palestinians out of Israel.

However, Mr Mitzna's campaign failed to take off and many Israelis are at the moment in no mood for messages of compromise.

Many Israelis also blame Labour for the collapse of the Oslo peace accords.

How easy will it be to form a government?

Israel is always ruled by a governing coalition because no party ever wins the minimum 61 seats in the Knesset (parliament) to rule alone.

The size of Mr Sharon's Likud victory means it must look for at least two other parties to join a coalition.

The Likud leader favours a broad-based coalition with Labour - which has 19 seats according to provisional results - but Mr Mitzna has ruled out joining a Sharon-led coalition.

The third largest force following the election is the secular Shinui party, which is to the right of Labour, with 15 seats.

But it has said it would refuse to serve in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that was part of the outgoing national unity government.

In the new Knesset, Shas will be the fourth largest party with 11 seats, down from 17.

Thus, Mr Sharon could be forced to turn to far-right and religious parties for his coalition, though such a grouping is seen as unstable.

Mr Sharon, himself, accused "extreme rightist parties" of having caused the fall of two right-wing Israeli governments in 1992 and 1999.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

As much as the international community would like to resuscitate the peace process, this is not likely to happen in the short term. There are is no peace process to speak of.

Any attempt to revive the process would be fraught with problems if Mr Sharon is forced into a coalition with rightist and religious parties.

While Mr Sharon says he will pursue a "two-state solution" called for by President George W Bush - which includes for an establishment of a Palestinian state - this would be opposed by the far right.

And right-wing parties and would be likely to take an even more hawkish line against the 28-month-old Palestinian uprising for an independent state than the current government.

If, however, Mr Sharon can rebuild a broad government of national unity with Labour it is difficult to see where the peace process could go, given that the prime minister has rejected most of Labour's traditional peace-making policies.

Why were early elections held?

At the end of October last year, Israel was once again plunged into political turmoil when the Labour Party objected to Mr Sharon's proposal in the budget to spend money on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Former Labour leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer quit the governing national unity coalition.

Mr Sharon's attempt to build a small majority coalition with right-wing parties failed and he chose to seek a new mandate rather than lead with a minority government.


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