ALTHOUGH HE DISAGREES with the vast majority of voters about the most important issue facing the country, Ariel Sharon was easily reelected this week as Israeli prime minister. The reasons for this paradox are relatively straightforward. Though Israelis overwhelmingly favor a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians based on the creation of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the withdrawal of Jewish settlements to make room for it, they also accept Mr. Sharon's contention that no credible Palestinian leadership exists with which such a deal can be struck. More than an indication of Israeli hawkishness, the election reflected the failure of Palestinian moderates, and their allies in the Arab Middle East and Europe, to stop suicide bombings and implement serious political reforms.
Mr. Sharon, who wishes to postpone a permanent peace settlement indefinitely, played a role in that failure. He effectively destroyed the infrastructure of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority during his first two years in office, and more recently he has helped block the emergence of moderate alternatives to Mr. Arafat. He also encouraged the steady expansion of West Bank settlements, including the creation of dozens of new outposts on previously unoccupied land. But the prime minister knows his public: During the campaign he repeatedly assured Israelis that he supports President Bush's vision of peace between side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states, and he promised to cooperate with the administration's effort to realize that vision. Israeli skeptics question his sincerity; they note that as a practical matter, Mr. Sharon opposes many of the provisions of the three-year "road map" prepared by the administration, starting with the freeze on settlements penciled in for this year.
The election results nevertheless offer the administration an opportunity to press for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Mr. Bush has seemed to make a principle of avoiding friction with Mr. Sharon; on the rare occasions when they have been at odds, Mr. Bush has usually backed down. No serious administration initiatives can now be expected until after the confrontation with Iraq is resolved -- and even then no progress will be possible unless Palestinians can muster the will to stop their terrorists and implement serious political reform. Yet Mr. Bush can, and should, take Mr. Sharon's public acceptance of the American vision at face value. Israel, like Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, is seeking a supplemental package of U.S aid to compensate it for the costs of turmoil in the region: Mr. Sharon has asked for $8 billion in U.S. loan guarantees and an additional $4 billion in new military aid. New aid to Israel may be merited on security grounds; but if so, it should be directly linked to U.S. security goals. The administration and Congress need attach only one condition to the Israeli package: that it be disbursed as soon as a full settlement freeze is implemented. Doing so would put Mr. Sharon's promises to the test, both for the White House and for Israelis who gave him their votes this week.