- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 30 (UPI) — The parties in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's outgoing government have won an absolute majority in Tuesday's elections, according to the final count announced Thursday evening.

The right wing religious bloc will have 69 seats in the new Knesset, Israel's parliament. The left wing, dovish, and Arab parties will have 33 and the centrist bloc will comprise 18 Knesset members. The tally means Sharon and his Likud Party could form a right wing-religious coalition even without the hawkish Ihud Leumi.

The prime minister declared victory in the national elections by Tuesday night and promptly called for a national unity government that would include his main rival, the more dovish Labor Party. Sharon headed a national unity government with Labor until October 2002, when his partners walked out after refusing to support a line in the country's strained budget for Israeli settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Labor wanted to allocate more funding to food, housing and other aid programs.

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

Likud exactly doubled its strength compared with the 19 it had in the previous 1999 national elections. Labor, in contrast, has sunk from 26 seats to 19.

The centrist Shinui Party also appears to have picked up some of the defectors from Labor voters, adding nine seats to its previous six in the Knesset. Leader Tommy Lapid urged Labor to join a new national unity government with Sharon: "Does Mitzna want to abandon Israel to the hands of the extreme right, that there should be an unceasing war, a terrible disaster?" he asked rhetorically Tuesday.

In the meantime, Sharon appears to be taking his time trying to form a new coalition, conduct that suggests he is waiting for pressure to build up on Labor to join his planned government.

In Israel, voters cast their ballots for a particular party as opposed to for individuals. With the total votes now counted, the proportion of party representation in the Knesset breaks down as follows:

— The right-wing/religious bloc thus comprises: Likud with 38 seats; Shas, 11; National Religious Party, six; Torah Judaism, five; Israel Baaliya (a Russian immigrants' party, two and Ihud Leumi, seven.

— The centrist bloc: Shinui, 15 and Am Ehad (Workers' Party), three.

— The left/doves/Arab bloc: Labor, 19; Meretz, six; Popular Front for Peace and Democracy (predominantly Communists), three; Balad (Arab nationalist), three; and Raam (a Muslim party), two.

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