Sharon wins in Israeli election
Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 at 1:29 a.m.
JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party won a resounding victory in Israel's parliamentary elections Tuesday, as voters endorsed his hard-line approach to the Palestinian uprising and dealt the dovish Labor Party its worst defeat in history.
The prospect of progress on the Palestinian front now appears to depend on whether Sharon can form a coalition that will include the opposition Labor, which campaigned on a pledge to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
In his victory speech before jubilant supporters, Sharon called for a "unity government" and warned that "there is no cause for celebration. The battle against the terrorist organizations hasn't ended and it claims more victims every day . . . It's a time for soul-searching, for uniting."
Israel TV quoted Sharon as saying he would not establish a right-wing government under any circumstances, although in his speech he did not offer any policy incentive to Labor.
Labor leader Amram Mitzna has ruled out joining a Likud-led government, and he reiterated that stance Tuesday after congratulating Sharon on his victory. "We will remind Sharon every day that there is an alternative, that there is another way," Mitzna said.
Even without Labor, Sharon is expected to face difficulties in forming a stable government from the myriad political and religious factions, especially amid the turmoil of the Palestinian uprising.
Despite unrelenting violence with the Palestinians and a crippling economic crisis, Likud won 37 seats in the 120-member parliament - up from 19 seats in the outgoing Knesset, according to official results from the 96.5 percent of votes that had been counted so far. The bloc of rightist and religious parties that support Sharon's tough stance against the Palestinians won 67 seats overall.
Perhaps the big winner was Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a pugnacious journalist-turned-politician who heads the Shinui Party, which has vehemently opposed joining any coalition with religious parties. Shinui emerged as the third largest with 15 seats. The Yugoslav-born Lapid, 71, called on Mitzna and Sharon to join him in a "secular unity government" excluding religious parties.
Once-dominant Labor, which called for a speedy pullout from most of the West Bank and Gaza, won only 18 seats, compared to 26 in the outgoing parliament - a reflection of Israelis' anger at the failure of a decade's peace efforts with the Palestinians which the party led.
The results were greeted with dismay by Palestinians. Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said they show "Israelis are preparing themselves for more violence and escalation, not for a peace process."
The vote was Israel's fourth national election in seven years, and only 68.5 percent of the 4.7 million-strong electorate cast ballots, the lowest-ever participation in a Knesset election. The campaign failed to ignite excitement, both because Sharon's victory was considered inevitable and because Israelis have despaired of a quick fix to the bloody and debilitating conflict.
"I hope this will be the last time we will have elections in the next four years," Sharon said as he cast his ballot at a Jerusalem high school. No Israeli government has served a full four-year term since 1988, and Sharon's coalition survived less than two years.
Sharon was elected several months after fighting erupted, in a landslide over Labor's Ehud Barak, who had offered the Palestinians a state in Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank. Negotiations fell apart over the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.
Sharon rescinded Barak's offers and has boycotted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, convincing the U.S. administration he should be replaced. The Palestinian Authority and its economy have been largely crushed, and Israel too has suffered: Tourism collapsed, the economy contracted, inflation and unemployment shot up.
Sharon has kept Israeli troops in Palestinian cities and towns for months, saying they will remain until Palestinian attacks have been stopped and the militants crushed.
Since Sunday, Israel's security forces barred Palestinians from entering Israel in an effort to prevent terror attacks - but violence flared in the Palestinian areas, where seven Palestinians were killed.
Three died in a powerful explosion at a Gaza City house late Monday. Palestinians claimed an Israeli helicopter fired a missile; military sources asserted a Palestinian bomb exploded prematurely in the building. In the West Bank town of Jenin, troops shot dead four Palestinians in battles Tuesday, Palestinian hospital officials said. The army said troops fired on armed men in a series of clashes.
The killings pushed the death toll since September 2000 to 2,071 on the Palestinian side, compared to 720 on the Israeli side.
"Visitors may wonder how after two such bitter years people prefer Sharon," wrote commentator Nahum Barnea in Yediot Ahronot. "When things are tough people stick to the familiar . . . They'll do so until there is a miraculous improvement or until it gets so bad that they can no longer stand Sharon's non-solutions."
Labor was undermined by other factors as well, including the deep antipathy of two key groups: Among Sephardim, the half of Israel's Jews with Middle Eastern roots, many still hate Labor for their treatment in the 1950s, when Labor-led governments were seen as favoring European Jews with subsidies and jobs; and among the 1 million Russian immigrants, the left is widely associated with communism.
Labor also had trouble selling itself as an alternative because of its 20 months as Sharon's junior coalition partner, before it bolted in November.
At the time, polls predicted a victory for Likud. But its lead was cut down by scandals, including allegations of vote-buying in the primary for Knesset candidates and reports of a $1.5 million loan by a South Africa-based businessman to Sharon's sons to help repay improper contributions to a past campaign.
The investigations could dog Sharon in coming months - but electorally, he appears to have ridden out the storm.
"I think Sharon did better than anyone else would have done," said Eli Cohen Zedek, 40, a voter in Jerusalem. "I think that with the right coalition to guide him, we will be okay."
In coming days, Sharon is expected to be asked by President Moshe Katsav to form a coalition, a complex task that he must complete in 42 days.
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