- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

JERUSALEM Ariel Sharon, Israel's former general whose exploits on and off the battlefield earned him the nickname "Bulldozer," ousted Prime Minister Ehud Barak yesterday in a record-setting landslide that put peacemaking efforts into uncharted territory.
Mr. Barak conceded defeat less than two hours after exit polls showed him losing by 19 percentage points. He announced he was quitting politics for now, leaving his Labor Party in disarray and setting the stage for a fierce succession battle.
The 72-year-old Mr. Sharon, in a victory speech to cheering supporters in Tel Aviv, said he was determined to forge a "national unity" government with Labor.
"I call on our neighbors the Palestinians to abandon the path of violence and to return to the path of dialogue and to the ways of peace," Mr. Sharon said, drawing jeers when he mentioned the Palestinians.
"I know peace requires difficult compromises from both sides," he said.
President Bush promptly called Mr. Sharon with congratulations, saying he "looked forward to working with him, especially with regard to advancing peace and stability in the region," a White House spokesman said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration would continue to play a role in Middle East peacemaking and called for all parties to work for peace in the region.
And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said the Palestinians "respect the decision of the Israeli people [and] hope the peace process will continue."
Four months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting formed the backdrop to the election campaign and helped Mr. Sharon paint Mr. Barak, 58, as a weak leader whose concessions to Palestinians had not only failed to bring peace but also helped spark violence.
Voter turnout was around 60 percent the lowest ever in Israel. The figure appeared to confirm analysts' predictions that many Israelis would register their disenchantment with both candidates by staying at home.
Israeli Arabs boycotted the vote to protest the killing of 13 of their brethren in October riots.
Despite Mr. Arafat's conciliatory remarks, other Palestinian leaders cringed at the prospect of Mr. Sharon at the helm of the Jewish state.
"This is the stupidest event in the history of Israel," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Marwan Barghouti, who heads Mr. Arafat's Fatah group in the West Bank and has been a key figure in the uprising against Israel, warned that the violence would continue.
"Israelis will regret electing Sharon," Mr. Barghouti said. "They will face international and regional isolation and they will not enjoy security as long as the Palestinians are under occupation."
Flag-waving supporters at Mr. Sharon's party base in Tel Aviv erupted in cheers and popped champagne corks when Israeli television broadcast exit poll results showing Mr. Sharon ahead 59.5 percent to Mr. Barak's 40.5 percent.
With 90 percent of the vote counted last night, Mr. Sharon had built up a lead of more than 24 percentage points.
In a country where the electorate is divided almost evenly between left and right, the margin was astonishing bigger even than Mr. Barak's own victory when elected in 1999.
The election had been fought over Mr. Barak's peace program, which Mr. Sharon said had put Israel in grave danger.
Mr. Barak, whose coalition crumbled in July when he decided to attend a peace summit with Mr. Arafat, said history would prove he was right in offering Palestinians a state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Only a border will bring quiet, only a border will bring security, only a border will bring deterrence and only a border will bring honor and mutual respect," he said yesterday.
The summit failed and two months later, a provocative visit by Mr. Sharon to a Jerusalem shrine touched off unparalleled Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
But at the end of his fiery speech, Mr. Barak surprised supporters with his decision to leave politics.
"After the formation of the new government, I intend to resign from the Knesset and from my position as the head of the Labor Party," he said.
Mr. Barak said his Labor Party should consider Mr. Sharon's offer to join a national unity government so long as it will be committed to advancing the peace process.
Coalition building will be Mr. Sharon's first task. Last night, he spoke to Mr. Barak and other Labor members on the guidelines of a broad-based government. But linking Labor with Mr. Sharon's Likud bloc could prove difficult.
Once complete election results are announced, within eight days, Mr. Sharon will have 45 days to form a coalition government and get it approved by Israel's parliament, or Knesset.
Because no lawmakers' seats were at stake, Mr. Sharon inherits the same sharply divided Knesset that Mr. Barak faced.
If the Labor party refuses to join the national unity government, Mr. Sharon would need support from several religious and right-wing factions, settling for a narrow government that could be as unstable and ultimately short-lived as the one it replaces.
Mr. Sharon's victory was a shock for Arab leaders who remember him as the architect of Israel's 1982 Lebanon war, which led to a massacre of Palestinian refugees in two Beirut camps by pro-Israel Lebanese militiamen.
But many Palestinians also resent what they see as Mr. Barak's harsh repression of the intifada that has cost at least 383 lives 318 Palestinians, 52 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs.
Mr. Barak's appeals to Israeli Arabs, who form more than 12 percent of the electorate, fell on deaf ears.
Only a trickle of voters showed up at polling booths in Arab towns in northern Israel, despite apologies by Mr. Barak in his campaign for the October killings.
Defiant Palestinians had declared a "day of rage" for election day, but clashes in the West Bank were low-key compared with earlier violence.
Israeli soldiers lightly wounded at least 40 protesters, hospital officials said.

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