- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

TEL AVIV Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party was a near-certain victor in Israeli parliamentary elections today, but the shape of a new governing coalition remained very much in the hands of the voters.
Likud's projected representation in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, has held steady at about 30 seats, according to polls, while the rival Labor Party, headed by Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, has slowly lost support, dropping to about 20 seats.
As tens of thousands of security personnel prepared to stand watch at polling stations around the country in case of any terrorist attack, political commentators spun post-mortems on a campaign considered the country's dullest in more than 25 years.
"The election campaign was like a basketball game in which you know who's going to win the only question was what the margin of victory would be," said Hanan Crystal, a veteran political analyst.
Election day in Israel is a national holiday, contributing to turnouts averaging about 78 percent in recent elections. Israelis vote for one of about 30 parties, which win seats according to the percentage of the vote they receive.
Mr. Sharon is poised to become the first prime minister in 15 years to get a new mandate from the public, even though the Palestinian uprising continued with no end in sight, Israel's economy is stuck in recession and corruption scandals have clouded his campaign.
That's because security remains the most important concern in the eyes of an Israeli public that is shellshocked from two years of violence. The overwhelming majority of voters support Mr. Sharon's aggressive response to terrorist attacks and his vilification of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The violence continued unabated yesterday as three Palestinians were killed and 11 wounded when a residence in Gaza City used by a well-known Hamas militant was destroyed in an explosion.
Palestinian officials said an Israeli military helicopter fired on the house, but Israeli government officials said the blast was caused by the premature explosion of a bomb being assembled by Hamas operatives.
Despite his lead in the polls, it is still far from clear what kind of government Mr. Sharon will head. Many doubt that the new government will last its four-year term if Mr. Sharon is unable to make good on a promise to rebuild the "unity" coalition with Labor that enjoyed high approval ratings until the alliance imploded in November.
"After the elections, whatever the results, they're going to have a hard time putting a government together," said Hanoch Smith, an Israeli pollster. "It's going to be a very unstable government."
A new Likud-Labor partnership is in serious doubt because of Mr. Mitzna's promise to stay out of a government headed by Mr. Sharon. The anticipated election drubbing today will leave Labor licking its wounds and searching to renew its identity in the opposition.
"In the last two years, what we've been doing has been cooperating with Sharon and sitting in his government," said Labor candidate Yuli Tamir as she phoned wavering voters at the party's headquarters.
"No wonder [voters] are asking themselves very serious questions about our ability. … If we are to prove ourselves as an alternative, we have to act as an alternative."
Mr. Mitzna, a political newcomer who worried voters with promises of a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip within a year and new peace talks with the Palestinians, failed to project an image as a worthy rival to Mr. Sharon.
Israelis still blame the Labor Party for the failed peace effort at Camp David and the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, analysts said. The party has also been hurt by public infighting during the final weeks of the campaign.


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