In an 18th-floor suite in the Sheraton Moriah, Ariel Sharon's close advisers and supporters gathered at 10 p.m. last Tuesday to watch the results of Israel's prime-ministerial election. Sharon, the Likud Party's candidate, sat directly in front of the television. When the newscasters announced his landslide win, the suite erupted in cheers as Sharon's people pumped the air with their fists. Only Sharon sat quietly, motionless and hunched. After his maverick, wilderness years as an outsider, the buck now stopped, dauntingly, with him. Prime Minister Ehud Barak phoned to concede. "Ehud, I want to tell you that I admire the way you fought with tenacity, like a good soldier," Sharon said. "We have great things to do and can only do them together." It was an overt appeal that Barak bring his Labor Party into a ruling coalition with Sharon. But Barak wasn't playing. An hour later he announced that he would resign the leadership of the Labor Party and quit Parliament.
It was the first of several likely rebuffs that Sharon will encounter in his battle to form a broad coalition, which Israelis call a "national unity government." The 72-year-old Prime Minister-elect desperately wants Labor in his coalition to provide a stable majority and forestall international concerns that the old general will kill the peace process. Labor leaders, however, are in disarray after a humiliating performance at the polls--Sharon got 62% of the popular vote, an Israeli record. Without Labor support, Sharon may have to turn hard right to form a ruling coalition. "Sharon wants a unity government," says Silvan Shalom, a Likud powerbroker. "With a narrow coalition, he'd be criticized by the Arabs, the world and half our own people."
In many ways the destruction of the Israeli left was the real story of the election. At the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, Barak's U.S. campaign consultants, Robert Shrum and Stanley Greenberg, monitored exit polls throughout election day. By 9 p.m., the dimensions of Barak's loss were clear. Campaign managers Tal Silberstein and Moshe Gaon came to Greenberg's hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean. "Ehud's going to resign," Silberstein said.
It wasn't what Barak's advisers thought he should do, but the political brawl that has begun behind the scenes in Labor suggests he might be smart to let his rivals duke it out. Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, a former Peace Now activist, is the front runner to take over. But old campaigner Shimon Peres is fighting for the job and has already signaled that he's in favor of a national-unity government. At least four others have declared they will try for the job. By week's end, Barak was still controlling coalition negotiations with Sharon and being pushed by party rivals to quit right now. Sharon is offering a unity deal that would give Barak the Defense Ministry and Peres the Foreign Ministry.