Wednesday, February 14, 2001 Volume 66, Issue 96



New prime minister of Israel faces challenges

Ariel Sharon must unite national government, restore peace

By Audrey Warren
Senior Staff Writer

With the largest margin of victory recorded for the position, Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister last week and promised to establish peace and restore safety for Israelis and settlers in the Middle East after months of fighting and dispute with Palestinians.

Some Houston and UH officials expect Sharon will try to accomplish his pledge by refraining from concessions made by predecessor Ehud Barak and forming a viable unified Israeli government.

Adam Wiener, academic affairs officer at the Israeli Consulate of Houston, said Sharon faces many barriers in seeking an agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat because of acts of terrorism taken against Israelis.

"The position of government right now is to not negotiate while terrorism is going on almost on a daily basis," Wiener said.

He said Israelis have confidence in Sharon and look to his crucial role in past peace agreements with Egypt in hoping for peace in Israel and the Middle East.

Not everyone views Sharon's past as peaceful, though.

"Sharon is known for his being very tough in the past against Arabs," said Bahaa Ghuneim, UH Arab-American Student Association president and a senior mechanical engineering major.

He has committed several atrocities against Arabs and Egyptians, he said.

"That's what makes him look, have such a dark image to his neighbors," Ghuneim said.

Even among Israelis, the election of Sharon as prime minister did not result from enormous support for the former foreign minister although he did win by a landslide, Wiener said.

Sharon's victory came from a feeling of frustration by Israelis with the current situation and impatience with Barak, he said.

"I think the Israeli people are tired of elections; they have had six different prime ministers in the last five years," Wiener said.

The election was not so much a vote for Sharon, but a vote against Barak, he said.

However, Sharon and Barak are different men in what they are willing to give up, which is why Israelis elected Sharon, Wiener said.

Israelis did not think Barak provided enough deterrence to terrorists and believed he made many unprecedented compromises, he said.

"When you have the most ancient synagogues in Jerusalem being burned down, something has to be done," Wiener said.

Israelis are fed up with the security situation, especially with the constant shooting every day, and they blamed Barak, he said.

"In Israel, what can you do but elect a leader who you believe can bring you more safety and deterrence?" Weiner said.

Israelis did not agree with Barak's offering of about 95 percent of the West Bank or the Temple Mount to Palestinians and the election reflected that, he said.

"Barak shocked the world with these concessions and was not operating with the consensus of Israel," he said.

Many Israelis believe he gave up too much without receiving enough in return from Palestinians.

Assistant UH economics professor Michael Ben-Gad is a native Israeli and recently returned from the country.

"Essentially, Barak lost the election because he made an enormous number of concessions," Ben-Gad said. "The minute he made those concessions, he was politically dead."

Barak was willing to give up the West Bank, and from a security standpoint that is a red line Israel cannot give up, Wiener said.

"People know Sharon will not make these far-reaching concessions. Israel needs to restore its red lines like the Jordan Valley, the lines need to be drawn again," Wiener said.

Ghuneim believes Barak and Sharon are actually very similar in their beliefs.

"Both prime ministers have the same objective, they are just different in the way they conduct their work," he said.

Although Sharon does have what Ghuneim calls a "tough past," he is optimistic Sharon may respond differently now in his overall policy making.

Sharon may have changed since the past; it is uncertain whether he will still have the same attitude towards the situation, he said.

In the meantime, Sharon's first priority will be to establish a national government unity.

Any negotiations will probably be put on hold until a viable Israeli government is established, Wiener said.

Sharon has 45 days to establish government and pass the budget. If he does not, a new election could be held, something Ben-Gad feels is quite possible.

If Sharon can form a national unity government, then he will be able to have a solid government, Ben-Gad said. "And he has made every possible signal indicating he wants a national unity government."

Sharon was elected Feb. 6 and has until about mid-March to form and establish his government.

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