World Reacts Cautiously To Sharon Win

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - World leaders reacted with caution Wednesday to the landslide win of Israel's Ariel Sharon, a former army general who has ruled out making concessions to the Palestinians while violent protests persist.

Possibly the most enthusiastic reaction came from President Bush, whose five-minute call of congratulations was received even before Prime Minister Sharon gave his own victory speech in Tel Aviv.

Sharon told supporters that, during the conversation, the two men had recalled a trip by the American leader to the Holy Land in 1998, when the then-Texas governor had predicted that he would become president, and Sharon prime minister.

"Although no one believed it, I was elected president and you were elected prime minister," Sharon quoted Bush as saying on Tuesday night.

The reaction from Britain's Labor government - which had been naturally allied to the defeated Ehud Barak and shared political advisors with his party and the U.S. Democrats - was more reserved.

While British newspapers pondered whether the result - Sharon won by 20 points - meant that Israelis had given up on the idea of peace, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said he still believed most Israelis wanted peace.

Cook said the UK would work with Sharon, but expressed the hope the new leader would resume peace efforts from where they left off under his predecessor.

"I hope it will be possible for us to take forward that common ground, and Mr. Sharon will start out from accepting the work that's been done and see how we can build on it."

Sharon has already ruled out making the kind of concessions Barak offered the PA. Those concessions, including the relinquishing of Israeli sovereignty over Judaism's holiest site, were rejected as insufficient by PA Chairman Yasser Arafat - but were too much for Israelis to swallow, and led in part to Barak's downfall.

Prime Minister Tony Blair also telephoned Sharon Wednesday, a Downing Street spokesman said.

Reaction from elsewhere in Europe was mixed. The European Union urged Sharon to pursue a "just and lasting peace," while Sweden, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said it hoped Sharon would "keep the peace process alive."

Norway, the country where secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the early 1990s led to the interim peace agreement named after its capital, expressed grave concern about the election result.

Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland expressed fears of a "dangerous situation" and said Norway would not be able to support the policies Sharon enunciated during this election campaign.

But he said Sharon should be given the chance before being judged.

His French counterpart, Herbert Vedrine, said he had a sense of sadness about the "missed opportunities" in peace talks during recent months. France would judge Sharon by his actions.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard congratulated Sharon, but reserved the bulk of his response for Barak, whom he said had gone "as far as I believe any Israeli prime minister could possibly go in trying to achieve peace. And I think it is a great tragedy that the Palestinians did not take advantage of the peace deal that Ehud Barak made."

Japanese Foreign Minster Yohei Kono said Tokyo believed a negotiated peace settlement was the only realistic option, and hoped Sharon would work to realize it.

In Islamabad, Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf said Sharon could move things either way. He could either exacerbate regional tensions, or perhaps end up being the only person able to take the decisions needed in the search for peace.

It was under a previous Likud prime minister described as a "hardliner," Menachem Begin, that Israel negotiated its first peace agreement requiring the surrender of captured territory, with arch-foe Egypt in 1979.

Although assessments of Sharon tend to focus on his controversial role as defense minister during the 1982 Lebanon War, he has held portfolios in several Israeli governments - agriculture, national infrastructure, housing and foreign affairs - since then and has far more political experience than Barak had before coming to power.

Sharon was also involved in negotiations with the PA at Wye River, Maryland in 1998. Reports at the time said he impressed some Palestinian negotiators with his flexibility and general approach to the talks.

Gloomy media predictions

Some media commentators responded with pessimism to the election result. The UK's left-wing Guardian said Israelis had yielded to "the dark forces unleashed by a Palestinian uprising"

The Independent said the Middle East faced "a new and perilous political map" Wednesday.

The Daily Telegraph predicted that, "given [Sharon's] reputation for impetuousness, many Palestinians will be planning ways to provoke him to reap international sympathy."

The London Times did not believe Sharon's victory represented the end of peace efforts. "It did signal, perhaps, an end to idealism about how the conflict might be managed."

Germany Die Welt pointed to the chaotic situation in the Israeli Knesset, which makes it difficult for any prime minister to get any business done.

"Splinter groups and tiny parties are destabilizing the governmental edifice and pose a threat to projects of national importance because they only care for their own interests," said the paper, saying a similar situation existed in Germany's pre-war Weimar government.

ABC in Spain said Israel voted not just against Barak, but also "against Yasser Arafat, against Bill Clinton and against the Palestinian intifada (uprising)."

Israel's Ha'aretz reports that the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem is gearing up for a diplomatic offensive, to reassure Western and Arab governments concerned about the country's change of leadership.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow