Will Tuesdays vote in Israel mean a unity government

JERUSALEM — With Ariel Sharon's victory in Israel's election on Tuesday considered a foregone conclusion, political observers are focusing instead on what will happen the morning after the vote.

Leftist political forces are resigned to the defeat of incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak and are debating two issues — whether to join a unity government under Sharon and whether to dump Barak as Labor Party leader.

And on the far right, there are suspicions that a victorious Sharon would ditch the hardliners in favor of a union with Labor.

Underlying these speculations is the consensus view that, however wide his margin of victory may be, Sharon will find it hard to cobble together a sustainable rightist-religious coalition — just as Barak found it hard to sustain a coalition of the left and center when his broader government fell apart in July.

The Knesset arithmetic shows that even if religious and immigrant parties join his coalition, Sharon will have a minority of the 120-member Knesset behind him.

He will need the support of Center Party members Dan Meridor and Roni Milo, and brothers David and Maxim Levy — still nominally ers of Barak's One Israel bloc — in order to create a working majority.

All four are onetime Likudniks who left the party to support Barak in the May 1999 election.

Even if Sharon does form such a coalition, keeping it stable and satisfied could consume most of his energy.

Most pundits predict that without a unity government, another round of elections is almost inevitable this year.

In new elections, they say, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost certainly would mount a challenge and would be hard to defeat. This explains Sharon's interest in the unity scenario — and Barak's as well, his protestations notwithstanding. On Monday, Barak reiterated that no contacts are under way to form a unity government after the elections.

Before a rally in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Barak told a meeting of the Foreign Press Association he still expects to gain enough support to win the election.

"I believe that the public will wake up at a certain point," Barak said. "Maybe on Friday, when it becomes clear that no other candidate will be appearing."

However, this morning is the last time Barak could quit the race, according to the Direct Election Law, and be replaced by another candidate from his party. In fact, on Wednesday, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that Labor leaders were trying to get Barak to step aside, with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres entering the race in his stead.

On Tuesday, Barak continued on an optimistic note pledging to enact a plan to separate Israel from the Palestinian areas if he wins the election, and said he'll "contemplate" a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat if one is arranged. His staff was pressing to arrange a meeting before the election, Ha'aretz reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Oded Eran, the former head of Israel's negotiating team, said the outcome of the election will have little bearing on the negotiations because Arafat is unlikely to back down on Muslim sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

However, the Israeli daily Ma'ariv later reported that negotiators at last week's summit in Taba, Egypt, had agreed to delay a decision on the Temple Mount for five years.

Other reported areas of agreement: allowing an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley for six years, building a Palestinian city in the Negev and allowing Palestinian refugees the right to return to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.

Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher, a top aide to the prime minister, confirmed some of the information in the Ma'ariv report. However, Palestinian officials denied that they had agreed to delay the Temple Mount decision or temper their demands for the refugees' right of return.

As violence continued this week, a Jerusalem Post poll showed Sharon's lead widening to 22 percentage points from 16 points Friday.

Discussing the Likud leader and a possible coalition, pundits point to Sharon's need to present a relatively moderate face to the world. This goal would be aided enormously by having prominent Laborites at his side.

Sharon himself speaks as though a unity government is in the bag. He says he will approach Barak the moment the exit polls are announced, at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Even if Labor balks, Sharon has pledged to establish a narrow government and leave key portfolios open so Barak and his party can join at a later date.

Plainly, the talk of unity is designed to appeal to the many centrist voters who, though disillusioned with Barak, are still a little wary of Sharon, given the former general's hawkish image at home and abroad.

The Likud's own unpublished polls indicate that the unity card is the strongest in their candidate's hand, and Sharon's strategic advisers are urging him to lay it down.

To counter that strategy, some in the Barak camp have urged their man to make it clear that he is not prepared to enter a unity government under Sharon.

They argue that as long as people believe the Likud line — that unity is the likely or even inevitable outcome of the election — they will vote for Sharon, believing he will have Barak beside him at the Cabinet table.

Barak's strategists argue that if Barak can convince voters he won't join Sharon, they may end up supporting Barak, albeit reluctantly.

A leading proponent of this strategy is Yossi Sarid, leader of the liberal Meretz Party and Barak's closest political ally at the moment. This week he publicly challenged Barak to reject the unity scenario.

Barak issued a statement saying he would never serve in an "Aswan-Tehran" government. This was a reference to threats voiced earlier by Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right to bomb Egypt's Aswan Dam and Tehran, the Iranian capital, in response to violence.

However, Barak's wording only heightened suspicions both in his own camp and among the opposition.

One interpretation is that while Labor would not sit in a government with the far right, it might sit with the more moderate Likud.

Clarifications later in the week went a bit further, but the feeling lingered that Barak and Sharon have an understanding, whether articulated or unspoken, that the election winner will invite the loser into a unity government.

Seasoned observers say Sharon and Barak may move fast to outflank Labor opponents of unity by offering a senior portfolio to Peres.

The reasoning is that other peaceniks like Justice Minister Yossi Beilin or Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg could hardly call for a split in the party to protest the unity government if Peres, champion of the peacemakers, were there alongside Barak.

In addition, these observers note, perhaps the surest way for a defeated Barak to head off a move to oust him from Labor's helm would be to lead his people quickly into a unity government, with some top posts reserved for Labor officials.

Well-placed Likud sources say Sharon is ready to offer Labor six ministries, two deputy ministries and at least two chairmanships of Knesset committees.

Of course, the argument for joining the government would not be couched in terms of the power Labor would have.

Rather, Barak would argue that it is the responsible course in order to moderate the Likud-led government and to ensure, by Labor's presence in the inner sanctums, that Sharon does not embark on any rash military adventures.

Despite the cogency of that argument — and the attraction of keeping a slice of power — key Laborites are preparing to fight any move toward unity.

Beilin and legislator Uzi Baram likely will be in the forefront of the opponents. Interior Minister Haim Ramon probably will be there too, especially if confronting Barak on unity could become part of a broader effort to depose the defeated prime minister.

Ramon makes no secret of his desire to seek his party leadership if Barak loses the election.

But Ramon faces a problem: Burg, his close friend and ally, also fancies himself a leadership contender and prime ministerial hopeful, and both draw their support from the same dovish elements in the party.

They would destroy their chances if both ran against Barak.

Even before next week's election, talks already are under way between the two men and their close aides to work out a way of determining which would run against Barak in a Labor primary, insiders say.

Barak's aides cite the party constitution, which specifies that primaries must take place 14 months after a general election.

But political observers believe that if Barak loses badly, and does not quickly bring Labor into a unity government, the upheaval will come much sooner.