Overwhelming victory sweet and easy for Sharon compared to forming a coalition that can survive

JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon is one of the savviest politicians Israel has produced.

It was Sharon who brought disparate right-wing parties together to form the Likud Party in 1973. It was also Sharon who, two years ago, persuaded a battered and bruised Labor Party to join a national unity government after Sharon won the premiership from the Labor incumbent, Ehud Barak.

But even Sharon will be hard-pressed to put together the broad-based government he would like, despite the unprecedented scope of Tuesday's victory for the Likud and the Israeli right.

Labor is refusing to join a Sharon coalition, and the third-place Shinui Party has set stringent conditions for joining.

That could leave Sharon facing his "nightmare scenario": a narrow coalition with the far-right and Orthodox parties.

Not easily deterred, Sharon will do all he can to entice Labor and Shinui into his government. His success could decide whether a new peace process can be launched, the kind of economic plan the country adopts, whether changes will be made in the religious-secular status quo — and even how long the government will last.

The left's crushing defeat evoked opposing reactions from its leaders. Meretz's Yossi Sarid resigned, whereas Labor's Amram Mitzna said he was determined to "fight on."

"We will remind Sharon and the Israeli public day in and day out that there is an alternative," he declared. "Politics is a marathon, and we are only in the beginning kilometers."

For Shinui leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the red line for his secular rights party is whether the government includes fervently religious parties.

Even without Labor and Shinui, Sharon still could form a stable coalition in the 120-member Knesset, but it would be a narrow government of the Likud, the far-right and the Orthodox parties.

Pundits agree that such a government couldn't move toward peace with the Palestinians or implement much-needed economic reforms.

Sharon believes a narrow coalition would deny him the flexibility to maintain excellent ties with Washington and to move forward on the Palestinian track. Israel is expected to come under increased pressure to make diplomatic progress with the Palestinians after an anticipated American attack on Iraq.

There are personal considerations too: There is bad blood between Sharon and National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman, who would become a major player in a right-wing coalition.

Sharon was incensed when Lieberman torpedoed his attempt to set up a narrow government last October.

"We are not like gum, for Sharon to chew and then spit out," Lieberman declared in the Knesset, referring to Sharon's oft-stated preference for a national unity government with Labor.

If Sharon is forced into a narrow coalition, some pundits believe he will make sure it doesn't last, precipitating yet another general election.

A coalition with Labor might force Sharon to adopt more conciliatory policies toward the Palestinians than he would like. On the other hand, it would give him flexibility toward the Americans, better standing in Europe and the ability to make concessions on the Palestinian track, while deflecting international pressure to negotiate under fire.

Indeed, in his victory speech, Sharon made a passionate appeal for a unity government with Labor, quoting the late Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the common destiny of the Jewish people.

Parties shouldn't let "narrow political considerations" override the national interest, he said. He also recommended that "things said in the passion of elections" — such as Mitzna's pledge not to enter a coalition with Likud — not become "an obstacle before national unity."

Aides suggest Sharon will work hard to entice Labor to join the government: He would include the establishment of a Palestinian state in government guidelines, offer Labor key ministries — including Foreign Affairs and Finance — and even consider the country's first all-secular coalition.

Shinui leader Lapid, in fact, called on Labor to reverse course and join a secular coalition.

As veteran columnist Nachum Barnea wrote in Yediot Achronot: "Shakespeare's tragic hero, Richard III, cried in his distress: 'A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse.' Sharon is not that generous, but he needs the horse.''

It's no accident that Sharon has appointed his former bureau chief, Uri Shani, to head the Likud's negotiating team: Shani has close personal contacts with veteran Labor figures, especially Shimon Peres.

But Shani faces a tough road: Mitzna believes one of the main reasons for Labor's electoral debacle was its long sojourn in Sharon's last national unity government. As part of the Likud-led administration, Labor's identity was blurred and it shared blame for the Likud's mistakes, Mitzna contends.

The only way to rebuild the party and make it a real alternative is by challenging the Likud from the opposition, Mitzna insists. Moreover, Labor leaders don't trust Sharon's peace talk, seeing it as a ploy to interest them in coalition-building.

Even if he can't win over Labor as a whole, Sharon still hopes to attract individual Labor leaders — including former party heads Peres and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — with ministerial and policy offers.

If he succeeds, the impact on Israeli political life would be dramatic: It could lead to a split in Labor, with one faction joining Sharon in government and the other establishing a new social democratic grouping with Meretz.

So far, Ben-Eliezer and Peres say they are solidly behind Mitzna, and will not be drawn into a coalition with Sharon. But external events — such as war in Iraq or Mitzna's failure to assert his leadership in the opposition — could change things.