- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

TEL AVIV Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won the top post of the Likud Party yesterday in a landslide vote that was marred by deadly attacks on Israeli voters at home and on tourists abroad.
Television exit polls showed Mr. Sharon trouncing Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by more than 20 points. Mr. Sharon's re-election as the Likud leader comes ahead of general elections in January, in which he is expected to win a new term as prime minister.
Hours before the polls closed, Palestinian gunmen attacked a Likud Party polling station in the northern Israeli city of Beit She'an, killing six and wounding dozens.
The election violence and twin attacks in Kenya in which 12 were killed at an Israeli-owned tourist hotel and missiles narrowly missed a passenger jet bound for Tel Aviv made Mr. Sharon's victory seem like an afterthought by the end of the day.
Mr. Sharon told supporters in Tel Aviv that his victory was no cause for celebration, and he vowed to seek justice against those who killed Israelis and tried to influence the country's election.
Mr. Sharon said the attacks "were part of the campaign of murder and culture of murder of the Arabs against Jews, an attempt by the terrorists to influence the democratic elections and democratic process in Israel."
He added: "Our long arm will get those who carried out the terror attacks. No one will be forgiven."
When a pair of Palestinian gunmen slipped into Beit She'an yesterday afternoon, the country was still absorbing the shock of news from Kenya.
To attack the polling station, the Palestinians drove a white sedan through the blue-collar town, a Likud stronghold, ignoring the crowded public areas that have been a common target of militants in the past two years.
This was a different sort of mission, and when they arrived at the brick-house polling station they made several passes waiting for ballot-box lines to grow, witnesses said.
The shooting left the polling station in chaos with bloodied election workers strewn outside in the parking lot and police tear gas sifting inside the building.
By the time an off-duty border policeman killed the two gunmen, the nationwide primary of 300,000 registered party voters had been thrown into disarray.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the shooting attack, saying it was a response to the killing of two militants earlier this week in the West Bank town of Jenin.
Mr. Sharon had 61 percent of the vote among Likud members, compared with 37 percent for Mr. Netanyahu, according to projections on Israeli television. A lesser-known challenger, Moshe Feiglin, had the rest. Two other television projections showed similar results.
Mr. Sharon will face the Labor Party's Amram Mitzna, a former general, in Jan. 28 general elections that polls predict Likud will win because of the Israeli public's shift to the right after two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Daily bloodshed with the Palestinians has tipped voter sentiment heavily in favor of the Likud Party, which is considered less forgiving toward Palestinians compared with the dovish Labor Party.
Political analysts said that a low voter turnout would help the underdog and that the sudden violence would generate sympathy for Mr. Netanyahu's hawkish stance toward the Palestinians. Ultimately, not even the last-second scare could alter the outcome.
"This is the voter's verdict," Mr. Netanyahu said, conceding defeat. "Now we must work together, all of us, to bring a huge victory for the Likud. We must unite around the principles of our movement and the person chosen to lead our movement, Ariel Sharon."
The prime minister conquered the center of the Israeli consensus during the first 20 months in office by arguing that his partnership with rival Labor has been the source of the country's resilience in the face of the Palestinian uprising. Even so, Mr. Netanyahu's telegenic appeal and promise to expel Mr. Arafat were considered a viable threat through the final days of a campaign that exposed the bitter rivalry between the two.
However, on the morning of election day, a headline in the daily Ha'aretz quoted Netanyahu aides who said the foreign minister had given up victory and was struggling not to be disgraced. About 3:20 p.m., as the attack began, Likud election workers carrying placards were seen sitting behind information tables, in a last-ditch attempt to sway votes.
The first of the Palestinian gunmen emerged from the car and opened fire on the Israelis outside the polling station, taking cover among the vehicles parked outside the Likud headquarters. Election workers and voters prevented the gunmen from entering the voting station.
A second gunman also shot from behind parked cars, according to witness accounts. Three sons of David Levy, a veteran Likud politician from Beit She'an and a former Israeli foreign minister, were injured in the shootout.
Schools kept children from leaving even after news that two Palestinian gunmen had been killed, for fear of a third.
"When I got near the front door of the Likud headquarters, I saw a terrorist standing in front of me. He was shooting in all directions. I aimed and fired a few shots near his head," said Eran David, who was near the polling station when he heard the shots.
"I didn't know there was another, second terrorist. After I saw him shoot one bullet, I got around him, aimed and fired. He also fell. I am only sorry I couldn't have gotten there sooner."


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