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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 17:46 GMT
Quiz Nick Childs in Jerusalem

Ariel Sharon's victory in the Israeli election is likely to change the course of the peace process.

The Likud leader said during the election campaign that he would take a much tougher stance on negotiations with the Palestinians.

His support for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip is also likely to enrage the Arabs in the occupied territories.

But Israelis felt it was time for a change, after the continuing stalemate in negotiations and the violence that came with it.

So what now for the peace process? Can Mr Sharon deliver the security that Israelis want? What stance will the Palestinians take now?

The BBC's Nick Childs answered your questions in a live forum from Jerusalem.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:



Chris Webb, London, UK:

Will the election of Mr Sharon threaten escalation of further violence? Do we need to worry about the overall balance of peace in the Middle East region?

Nick Childs:

I think certainly the election of Mr Sharon raises a large number of questions largely because of his reputation. His reputation - very controversial in the past - has led to a great deal of concern in the international community and real hostility amongst Palestinians as to where he is going to lead the Israeli people, the country and the whole peace process. Having said that, I don't think we yet know what kind of Mr Sharon has been elected. There is Mr Sharon the hard- liner, with a very difficult and controversial past, but there is also a Mr Sharon the pragmatist and as yet we don't really know what we have on our hands.

He has talked in very hard line terms about the kind of peace process he wants. He is rejecting essentially what Mr Barak was trying to do and that he is not prepared to go for any further concessions for example on the territorial question or on the issue of Jerusalem. But at the same time in his election victory speech, he talked about a peace process with a need for real and painful compromises on both sides. So I think we will have to wait and see how things unravel - what sort of pressures he is going to be under internally and also internationally. It is very difficult - it is a very uncertain time still.

As far as the wider question of regional balance is concerned, I think there must still be very grave concerns about that - there would have been whoever is in power unless there was some sort of breakthrough on the peace process front. So long as the volatility continues on the ground, the threat of escalation, both internally between the Israelis and the Palestinians and in the broader regional sense, remains. Perhaps there was more of a chance of making some sort of progress, if not reaching an agreement, if Mr Barak had stayed in power. With Mr Sharon in power the prospects of any real resumption of negotiations must be more limited at this stage simply because he has talked about the need for security before peace talks and because he still has to forge an administration.

Nik Kieboom, Manchester, UK:

If Israeli's want peace then how can they elect a man with such history and such an "iron fist" stance? He is offering far less in concessions than Barak and consequently the Palestinians are far less likely to agree to a peace deal.

Nick Childs:

I think in terms of why Mr Sharon was elected, what we really have had in this election and campaign is a theme of two major issues: one is real disillusionment and disappointment with Mr Barak and also the other is a question of the Israeli people craving some sort of return to security. Although a lot of people realise and believe voting for Mr Sharon is more of a gamble because of his past, they also believe that perhaps he offers a better chance of the security that they would like to see again following the months of Palestinian uprising. So, in a sense what we are talking about is a rejection of Mr Barak rather than huge enthusiasm for Mr Sharon.

Dima, Nottingham, UK:

Arafat has postponed a unilateral declaration of the Palestinian state three times to give the peace process a chance. If he threatens to do so in the future, would Sharon annex the occupied territories?

Nick Childs:

I think this is one of the areas where there is a potential flash point. If there is a continued frustration on the Palestinian side that there is no progress and if there is pressure on the Palestinian leadership from the Palestinian grassroots, then this whole question of a unilateral declaration by the Palestinian leadership - by Mr Arafat - may resurface and that would certainly create new tensions. It would have created tensions anyway if Mr Barak had been in power. He talked of the repercussions if the Palestinians went ahead and that there would essentially be no resort other than to go for a political separation and I am sure at the very least that would be Mr Sharon's point of view.

There will be pressure obviously from the international community on Mr Sharon to try and move forward on the peace process. We have already seen that in some of the reactions of governments around the world to Mr Sharon's victory - they say they hope that he will be able to forge a continuing peace process. But I think there will also be pressure behind the scenes more on the Palestinian leadership, on Mr Arafat, to say - don't give up on the peace process, that is what both sides want and that is what both sides ultimately need.

Yuen Cheung, London, UK:

Will Sharon be able to rely upon the support of Shahs and other minority parties, assuming that any kind of peace deal is reached?

Nick Childs:

Again that is a very difficult problem for Mr Sharon despite his, overwhelming victory over Mr Barak. He has a very difficult task now of actually forging an administration that will be stable and allow him to remain in power.

He has talked about creating a national unity government bringing in a broad spectrum of political parties. But that is going to be very difficult, because there are very different perspectives from each spectrum on what the peace process should amount to - how it should be forged, how it should go forward and how quickly it should go forward. So if, for example, on the one hand he is talking about trying to bring in Labour, that will create lots of pressures on Labour itself which is split on whether it would like to join a Sharon administration. But it also means that he has to look very carefully at whether he can bring together Labour for example on one side and some of the religious and more right-wing parties on the other side who would have a very different perspective. Having said all that however, unless he can forge a broad based coalition then he is going to be in a very difficult situation.

He is essentially faced with the same rather fractious Knesset that Mr Barak faced and an unstable government would lead many people to believe that perhaps his administration might only last a few months. So, the kind of support he would need to keep going might not be available - that I think is one of the major concerns, both internally and internationally. Trying to bring together these disparate parties and disparate aspirations may be beyond Mr Sharon and actually what we will have is something of a vacuum, particularly on the Middle East process and vacuum is always a dangerous thing in political and diplomatic terms because it only leads to more frustration on the ground.

Harry, Newcastle, England :

What steps can Mr. Sharon take to cut the violence. What more can he do than his predecessor?

Nick Childs:

I think a lot of Palestinians would also be asking that question because obviously one of the tenets and one the platforms on which Mr Sharon was running and one of the reasons he got the kind of support that he did in the election was that Mr Barak was perceived as being weak in the face of the Palestinian uprising. Yet the Palestinians would argue and have argued that from their perspective there hasn't been much to choose between Mr Barak and Mr Sharon - both men are hide line former generals, that Mr Barak was very tough and that is why in terms of the uprising, you have a death toll where 50 Israelis or therabouts have died but over 300 Palestinians have died.

Having said all that, there are ways in which the military could crack down further in terms of cutting off the territories and in terms of actual specific military responses to violence. Although the perception has been of a massive Israeli military machine available and a rather less formidable response on the Palestinian side. The fact is that up to now the Israelis have only used a small proportion of their military firepower and that it is still available. Mr Sharon will be mindful of the fact that he must keep international opinion on his side as much as possible. There has been plenty of international outrage at what they perceive is an excessive use of force by the Israeli military up to now and that will weigh in his thinking. But certainly a lot of the reasons for his overwhelming victory was because Israelis expect and hope that if the violence continues then he will have a much tougher response.

Mr Sander Meredeen, Nottingham UK:

It is said that the Likud supporters say that Arabs only recognise strength. How will Sharon interpret this in his first months in government?

Nick Childs:

I think it will be a case that it is going to be a much tougher line in terms of the specific issues around the peace process - that is the issues of Jerusalem, handing over more territory and the issues of the return of refugees. So those are specific areas where although Mr Sharon says that he is prepared to talk about real peace, providing there is security, that the position between him and Mr Barak are most clearly defined - that he is essentially rejecting and has rejected the kind of concessions that Mr Barak has given.

What we will see over the next few months I think is some kind of interpretation and ability to see just exactly what the Israeli people believe they have been voting for or who they voted for. The opinion polls say that in general terms, the Israeli people want a peace process - they have lived with it for many years now and they want to see a peace process continue. The question is what kind of peace process we are talking about. Some people would say that this has not been just a rejection of Mr Barak but it is actually been a rejection of the Peace Now approach and what they are looking for is just security and non-belligerency and the questions of an overall settlement will be postponed until a much later date.

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