A wide consensus has developed that the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister, as appears likely on February 6, would have disastrous results.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat holds that Sharon's victory would cause "an escalation of the conflict. With him in power we cannot have peace." Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri agrees, saying that "Sharon's position is the best prescription for war." Concurring, Prime Minister Ehud Barak calls Sharon's ideas a "recipe for violence and deterioration."
And he is hardly alone; according to survey research, more than 40 percent of Israelis worry that Sharon's election would "hasten the risk of war." Some outside analysts concur.
These pessimists focus either on Sharon's electoral platform (his plans not to hand over more territory to the Palestinians) or his history ("the name Sharon is synonymous with catastrophe," remarks a former Lebanese foreign minister).
But there is another, more optimistic way of looking at Sharon's impact as prime minister, one that sees him stopping the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict now under way.
This viewpoint notes that the danger of large-scale bloodshed has vastly increased since the Oslo process began in 1993. Then, almost no one worried about an all-out Arab-Israeli war; today, this is a commonplace concern.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has moved divisions close to Israel and threatened six months of continuous bombardment. Troops in Syria have reportedly gone on alert. Israeli forces have been reinforced and other steps taken to prepare for war.
The increase in tension has many causes, one of which is the Arabs' and Moslems' perception of a weakened Israel. They are not impressed by an Israel that pulls out its troops under fire from Lebanon or from Joseph's Tomb, that permits its soldiers to be abducted or lynched without reprisals, or that issues ultimatums without consequence.
Nor are they impressed by an Israel that persists in making more concessions, no matter how little it gets in return. This they see as a sign of desperation and they respond with aggression. That should come as no surprise; as the Russian proverb puts it, "if you want to attract wolves, act like a lamb."
Thus have Israeli policies since 1993 brought the region closer to all-out war than at any time since the mid-1960s.
To avoid the decline into war, Israel urgently needs a leader who will intimidate potential enemies, making them less likely to resort to force.
This is where Sharon enters the picture.
Precisely because of his bellicose reputation, Sharon's ascent to power could diminish the chances of war. Seen by Arabs as wild, out of control and even crazy, his presence would make Saddam or Arafat think very carefully before making trouble.
Not only could a Sharon prime ministry save Israel from war, it could also benefit the West and even the Arabs.
The West gains because a full-scale Arab-Israeli war - with its possible disruption of oil supplies and terrorism - is the greatest danger the Middle East poses. If Sharon prevents such a war, he forwards American, European and global interests.
Arabs profit too. However demoralized Israel may be, its mighty war machine practically insures that should war break out, the Arabs would lose, just as they lost every prior war against Israel. By intimidating the Arabs, then, Sharon saves them from another likely defeat.
It is also possible that Sharon's being prime minister will help Arab-Israeli relations. Dan Meridor, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and until days ago a part of Barak's coalition, made this point when he endorsed Sharon's candidacy: "We cannot make peace with the Palestinians if they maintain their current positions. Maybe Sharon's hard-line stance will convince them to change their positions."
Most of Sharon's long career as a soldier and a politician took place when Israel was perceived as a strong country. In those years, his impulsive and uncompromising actions were sometimes over the top.
But now, when Israel suffers from being seen as weak, Sharon could well be precisely what the country needs. His historical moment, it appears, has arrived.