Former Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon's election Tuesday as prime minister may well signal a sharp escalation of the violence that already has claimed nearly 400 lives in the Mideast. The first challenge facing both Sharon and his nemesis, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, will be keeping Israel's internal clash from descending into a protracted regional war.
Sharon was elected for a reason. Despite major concessions by defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak over the size of a Palestinian state and sovereignty in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the Palestinians' only counteroffer was violence. As a result, Israelis voted for the fighter instead of the pacifist. For too many, the peace process had become a threat to survival instead of hope for the future.
Barak failed to deliver the peace and stability he had promised, and could not effectively counter Palestine's intifada without abandoning his own peace process.
Sharon's election would have been unthinkable a year ago. Many Israelis blame him for the nation's 18-year entanglement in Lebanon, and he has a history of bold and sometimes reckless action. He was elected as a caretaker head of the Likud Party while younger leaders vied for power. He was vaulted into national leadership by a combination of convoluted Israeli politics and the Palestinian violence he helped trigger with an ill-advised visit to a sensitive religious site.
In voting for Sharon, Israelis voted for his basic view of the quest for peace: No negotiations until the violence ends.
His own hard-line stance - no division of Jerusalem, no abandonment of the Jewish settlements, no "right of return" for Palestinian refugees - also marks an abrupt end to the increasingly unpopular concessions Barak had offered.
In rejecting those offers and countenancing the violence of a second intifada, Arafat also has lost a chance to establish a sovereign Palestinian state in the near future. Now he confronts the Israeli leader most reviled in the Arab world, a man blamed by Arabs and implicated by Israeli authorities in the 1982 massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon.
The Palestinian Authority has signaled continued willingness to work toward peace, but there now is a much higher chance of Israeli military reprisals. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are likely to feed on the clashes, worsening conditions while complicating Arafat's own efforts to maintain overall control. For now, at least, Egypt and Jordan also are telling the Palestinians they're on their own and the border nations have no intention of going to war with Israel.
There are some experts who see only a short-term escalation, followed by a second chance at peace talks that were going nowhere. In the long run, they argue, Sharon has a better chance of restoring order to the region because he can wield both a carrot and a stick.
Such a resolution would not be the full-blown, lasting peace envisioned by the 1993 Oslo Accord and the land-for-peace talks it launched. It would be more of a living arrangement, a truce between adversaries aware that disruptions would simply trigger more reprisals and pain.
It is a vision of calm, not of peace. But for now, it may be the most for which this troubled region can hope.