Benjamin Netanyahu bounced into the dirt lot outside another polling station in his armored Chevrolet Suburban. Israel's former Prime Minister climbed confidently out into a crowd of voters gathered in this blue-collar town hard by Tel Aviv's airport. A few began singing a Hasidic song: "Messiah, Messiah." In a stronghold of the Likud Party that Netanyahu used to head, that seemed no exaggeration. It is the hard-line nationalism of the Likud and its likely right-wing coalition partners that these people want, and Foreign Minister Netanyahu is the man they think best suited to sell the tough policies of that government to the world. A smiling old man in a black yarmulke bent to kiss Netanyahu's hand.
Back in the Suburban, Netanyahu pondered the coalition options of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The 74-year-old Likud chief professes a desire to revive the "unity government" he had with the Labor Party, but Labor's leaders say they're unwilling to re-enter a partnership that last week brought them to their worst showing in any Israeli election: Labor got only half as many seats as Likud, and came close to falling into the welter of tiny parties that jostle for ministerial jobs in coalition talks. Most analysts bet Sharon will have to go for a right-wing coalition with a series of nationalist and religious parties. That will keep Netanyahu in the Foreign Ministry that he's occupied since returning to the government after a failed party leadership run against Sharon in November. "Israelis voted for Sharon because they don't believe there will ever be peace with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat," Netanyahu told Time. "What they asked themselves in this election is, 'Who will be tougher?'"
Sharon has proved he can be plenty tough. But with Labor, which signed the Oslo Peace Accords, in his cabinet, world leaders couldn't write off the possibility that Sharon might agree to a peace deal even as Israeli tanks occupied every Palestinian city in the West Bank. But after more than two years of deadly intifadeh, says Netanyahu, "this election is a repudiation of Oslo." Many Israeli voters rejected more than just the peace agreement. Turnout was the lowest in Israeli history, and the biggest proportionate gains were by the ardently secular Shinui Party.
The likely coalition architecture makes the diplomatic task facing Sharon and Netanyahu tricky. Netanyahu's plan is to say that Israel only wants to apply the same principles to its fight against Palestinian violence that President George W. Bush is pressing in the post-Sept. 11 era. That's bad news for Arafat. "There's a precedent being set for the removal of despotism in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Netanyahu. "If we're able to engineer regime change in the Palestinians, it might be possible to introduce some process toward peace." Arafat's aides say the Palestinian leader never expected his old left-wing negotiating partners to lose so badly. "He was shocked," says a close aide, "as if he had been told bad news about his own health."
Netanyahu's game plan isn't without possible pitfalls. Ditching Arafat would upset European and some Arab governments. And once the U.S. is rid of Saddam Hussein, Washington doves may push for a tougher line on Israel to conciliate an Arab world troubled by the American war against Iraq. And Sharon and Netanyahu aren't promising that their hard line will end the conflict. They believe they can contain the violence and, gradually, set up a Palestinian regime that will have learned a lesson from the violent collapse of Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
At Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv's low-rent Ha-Tikva quarter, the moments after the election results came through were dismal. Outside the hall, the wind carried the discordant sounds of a few dozen disappointed activists gamely singing along with Labor leader Amram Mitzna, as he crooned old Zionist tunes from the 1950s. A clutch of young Labor supporters huddled on a wall, smoking cigarettes. Yoav Zinger, an 18-year-old, lamented that he was soon due to begin his compulsory military service. "That's why I'm depressed," he said. "So many people were killed already and now, after this election, it's going to be much worse." Most Israelis agree, which is why they voted as they did.