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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 17:47 GMT
Analysis: Sharon weighs coalition options
Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon has 28 days to form a government

Likud has won a striking victory, virtually doubling its number of parliamentary seats.

But the character of the new government won't be known until it is clear what kind of coalition he will be able to form.

If he wanted to, Ariel Sharon could probably put together a parliamentary majority tomorrow - his own party's 37 seats plus the ultra-orthodox parties and the far right, and he would be home and dry.

But there is no rush. The constitution gives him 28 days to form a government, and even then, if he fails, he can be allowed a fortnight longer.

The prime minister is likely to take his time, and woo the big, centrist parties, Labour and Shinui

The prime minister has already told Israeli TV that a narrow right-wing government is not what he wants. He wants a more broadly-based alliance, and if he cannot get it any other way, he says he is prepared to call fresh elections.

The idea of yet another election would certainly cause dismay in Israel, but the cost of moving the government to the extreme right would be high.

  • Backlash

The ultra-orthodox would want concessions - more funding for their institutions, and legislation to enforce a more religiously observant life on Israel as a whole.

And that would bring a backlash from secular Jews already exasperated with the privileged position of the very religious in Israeli society.

Their exasperation propelled a hitherto obscure party, Shinui, which campaigned on just this issue, to third place in the polls.

Results of the Israeli election, which returned Ariel Sharon to power
Perhaps more importantly, by turning to the far right, Ariel Sharon would also be allying himself with groups who refuse to deal with Yasser Arafat, who have set themselves totally against a Palestinian state, and who don't want to dismantle even one of the illegal Jewish settlements inside the Palestinian territories.

All existing peace plans, including the so-called 'road map', would be dead. And that would go down badly with the plan's main sponsor, the United States, on whom Israel is relying to get it out of its economic mess.

It would also leave the government with no strategy for ending the conflict, except the use of force.

'Mistake'

And so the prime minister is likely to take his time, and woo the big, centrist parties, Labour and Shinui.

Both said things before the election which would make it hard for them to join his coalition.

Shinui said it would not be part of any government that also included the ultra-orthodox. Labour made it clear that its previous co-habitation with Likud had been a mistake, and one which would not be repeated.

That stand was reinforced by the Labour leader, Amram Mitzna, in his speech on election night.

But a lot could happen in the next month or six weeks, not just inside Israel, but also in the wider world.

A war with Iraq is looming, and that kind of national emergency could change the political equation, and make it much easier for Labour and Shinui to respond to Mr Sharon's appeals, and join a government of national unity.


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