- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 29 (UPI) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party Tuesday won the national elections and promptly called for a national unity government that would include his main rival, the more dovish Labor Party.

Labor's leader Amram Mitzna conceded defeat but rejected Sharon's invitation.

According to a count of about 90 percent of ballot boxes, the Likud won 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset, almost doubling its strength compared with the 19 it had in the previous 1999 national elections. Labor has gone from 26 seats to 19.

Hundreds of jubilant Likud members cheered Sharon at a 1 a.m. gathering Wednesday in the Fair Grounds in north Tel Aviv and hailed him as "King of Israel," but the somber faced prime minister hushed them.

"This is not a time for celebrations," he said.

Sharon appeared concerned about his ability to form a government of his choice that would be more acceptable abroad and not have a hawkish, belligerent image.

He headed a national unity government with Labor until October 2002 when his partners walked out. Tuesday Sharon sought to bring them back.

The prime minister said his views on a settlement with the Palestinians "conform" with those of U.S. President George Bush. He has often said — but Tuesday night did not repeat — readiness for "painful concessions" including the establishment of a Palestinian state once the Palestinians cease violence and take other measures. Labor has advocated a unilateral pullback to a line Israel would determine if no agreement is reached.

"The people had their say. They decided in favor of my plan," Sharon declared at the victory rally.

"Now all the political forces are duty bound to implement the voters' desire," he continued. "The differences among us are dwarfed in the face of the terrorist organization's murderous hatred to everything that is Israeli, Jewish, and in the face of the treat of war in the Gulf," he added.

In the Palestinian Authority's first reaction to Sharon's overwhelming victory, Cabinet Minister Saed Erekat said results meant the situation would go from bad to worse.

"We know very well that electing Sharon again would escalate violence in the region, the situation would deteriorate and the peace process would never progress and remain stalled," Erekat said.

"I'm sorry to say that the results of the Israeli elections doesn't give the Palestinians any hope to bring the stalled Middle East peace process back on track," he added.

Meanwhile, Shuinui Party leader Tommy Lapid, who appears to have won 15 mandates from six in the outgoing Knesset, also urged Labor to join a national unity government.

"Does Mitzna want to abandon Israel to the hands of the extreme right, that there should be an unceasing war, a terrible disaster?" Lapid asked.

Labor Party leaders have said — and former Interior Minister Haim Ramon Tuesday night reiterated — that their participation in a national unity government made them lose badly in Tuesday's elections.

Shortly before midnight, after having congratulated Sharon for his victory and having agreed to meet him, Mitzna told his party: "Sharon hopes Labor will once again be a fig leaf for its failing policy, but we do not intend to join (him) but to replace him."

Mitzna pledged: "Every day and in every place the Labor Party will remind Sharon and the entire public that there is an alternative."

Based on the latest partial count, Sharon could form a coalition with the religious parties — Shas, the National Religious Party and Torah Judaism — with the right wing Russian immigrant party Israel Baliya and the hawkish Ihud Leumi.

However, Ihud Leumi's leader, Avigdor Liberman, adamantly opposes Palestinian statehood and is demanding Arafat's expulsion, something Sharon cannot do without incurring a major confrontation with the United States.

Shinui's Lapid Tuesday night reiterated he would not join a coalition with the ultra-orthodox parties, nor enter a coalition with Sharon unless Labor does so too.

Meanwhile, Meretz leader Yossi Sarid said he would quit if the actual results show his party was trounced. Meretz had 10 mandates in the outgoing Knesset and the latest poll gave it seven in the new Knesset.

"I want a time out," Sarid told his party.

Voter turnout was the lowest in Israel's history. Central Elections Committee spokesman Giora Pordes said 69 percent of the eligible voters exercised their right. That is almost 10 percent less than the turnout in the 1999 elections.

Some 4.72 million Israelis were eligible to vote but an estimated 430,000 people are believed to be abroad and cannot vote because Israeli has no absentee ballot system except for its emissaries abroad.

Right-wing voters saw no let up of the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, but Likud's major political rival, the Labor Party, campaigned on putting together the pieces of the shattered peace process.

By 3 a.m. the Knesset's composition seemed as follows: Likud with 37 mandates; Labor, 19; Shinui, 15; Shas, 11; Meretz, seven; Ihud Leumi, seven; the ultra-orthodox Torah Judaism, five; the National Religious Party, five; Israel Baaliya, two; the workers' Am Ehad party, three; and the Arab parties the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, four; United Arab List, two; and Balad three.

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(With reporting by Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza)

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