- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

TEL AVIV Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday led the Likud Party to its biggest election victory in 15 years, as the Israeli electorate signaled its acceptance of his tough line toward Palestinians over more than two years of daily bloodshed.
His main rival, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, conceded defeat in a telephone call to Mr. Sharon soon after voting ended yesterday. Partial results showed that a new parliament to be dominated by hawkish and religious lawmakers was swept into office.
Despite unrelenting violence with the Palestinians and a crippling economic crisis, Likud won 37 seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset up from 19 seats in the outgoing parliament, according to official results from the 96.5 percent of votes counted when reports last came in. The bloc of rightist and religious parties that support Mr. Sharon's tough stance against the Palestinians won 67 seats overall.
The big winner, perhaps, 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 party, with 15 seats. The Yugoslav-born Lapid, 71, called on Mr. Mitzna and Mr. Sharon to join him in a "secular unity government."
Once-dominant Labor, which called for a speedy pullout from most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, won only 18 seats, compared with 26 in the outgoing parliament a reflection of Israelis' anger at the failure of a decade of peace efforts with the Palestinians that the party led.
The results confirmed dozens of opinion polls throughout the three-month election campaign that foresaw a solid victory for Mr. Sharon. The near-certainty of the Likud triumph and public weariness from the country's fourth election in seven years translated into a turnout of 68 percent, the lowest for an Israeli parliamentary vote.
Mr. Sharon became the first incumbent Israeli prime minister since 1988 to win re-election, even though his campaign was dogged by corruption scandals, an economy mired in a two-year slump, and a public that doesn't see an end to the Palestinian uprising. Mr. Sharon sounded a sober note in his victory address.
"There is no room for celebration. The battle against terrorist organizations is not over and claims victims every day," he said.
"The Iraqi threat hangs above our heads. The social-economic crisis still threatens the economy and the prosperity of the country. It's a time for soul searching."
Mr. Sharon, who has six weeks to form his government coalition, could easily join with far-right and religious parties to form a coalition that could command a majority of up to 68 seats in the new parliament.
He, instead, appealed to rebuild a broad-based "unity coalition," which enjoyed majority approval ratings from an electorate that wants to see a balanced government.
Mr. Sharon repeated early today that he had no intention of forming a government with the extreme right, public television reported.
Although he didn't mention his principal rivals by name, the comments were aimed at pressuring Labor into joining his coalition.
"The people said their piece. They have decided on behalf of my program," Mr. Sharon said. "Now it is incumbent upon all of the political forces to carry out the judgment of the voter. The differences between us are dwarfed by the murderous hatred of terrorist organizations toward Jews and Israelis."
A coalition with Labor would also make it easier for Mr. Sharon to go with the international community's "road map" to end Israeli-Palestinian fighting and revive the peace process.
A coalition with far-right and religious parties could handicap Mr. Sharon by making him dependent on politicians pledging to force him to hew to hard-line positions likely to cause a rift with the United States.
But there was little sign yesterday that the "unity" option would come to fruition soon. In concession remarks that sounded more like the inaugural speech of a new opposition leader, Mr. Mitzna said that he has no plans to reverse an election promise not to join Mr. Sharon.
"We showed the voter a clear and courageous position, which showed the way toward hope. The voters chose otherwise," the Haifa mayor said. "It's not a shame to be in the opposition, and I promise that our time there will be short."
"Mr. Sharon hopes that the Labor Party will return to be the fig leaf of his failed policies. But we don't intend to join, rather to replace him."
Mr. Sharon's policy of retaliation for Palestinian terrorist attacks, which brought the Israeli army into West Bank cities for the first time in seven years, and his vilification of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat won wide support among a public still shell-shocked from the unprecedented wave of attacks.
Even though there is wide support for the Labor call for a unilateral separation with the Palestinians, Israel didn't trust Mr. Mitzna to carry it out.
Palestinian Authority officials, who have tried to distance themselves publicly from domestic Israeli politics, voiced disappointment with the results.
"We all know it's going to be an era of status quo as far as the frozen peace process, and more escalation," said Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat.
"I don't see any signs the peace process will be revived soon. God help Palestinians and Israelis."

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