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Sharon Swamps Barak in Israeli Vote for Premier

Election: The right-wing former general's victory may further roil the peace process. The defeated prime minister resigns as head of the Labor Party and quits parliament.


TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon, the ironfisted warrior-turned-politician whose name is associated with some of the bloodiest chapters of Israeli history, was elected prime minister in a crushing landslide Tuesday with a promise to drastically change the way Israel pursues peace.

Sharon's defeat of Ehud Barak was absolute: Just 20 months after his own lopsided victory in a prime minister's race, Barak stunned even his closest advisors late Tuesday by announcing his resignation as head of the left-of-center Labor Party. He also relinquished his seat in parliament.

It was a breathtaking reversal of the Israeli political scene that gives power to the hard-line right wing and hurls the troubled Middle East peace process deeper into an abyss of uncertainty. Israelis voted out of anger and fear, bereft of hope and traumatized by the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed in years.

The official count of most returns gave Sharon, a 72-year-old former army general, a 25-percentage-point lead over Barak, also a former army commander. It was one of the largest, and most humiliating, defeats in Israeli politics.

At the very least, Sharon's sweeping victory was expected to slow the peace process further--and at most, paralyze it. He must first woo support from within Israel's fragmented political spectrum, however, in an effort to build a coalition and ensure the survival of his government beyond a mere few months. But Barak's resignation from the Labor leadership complicates Sharon's future.

Early today, at the end of a long election night, Sharon went before a crowd of jubilant supporters popping champagne corks to call for the unity needed in a clearly divided country. He was flanked by top leaders of his right-wing Likud Party and the major ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

"Today, the state of Israel has set out on a new path," he said, mopping sweat from his face. "My government will act to restore the security to the citizens of Israel," he continued, to boisterous cheers, "and to achieve a real peace and stability in the area."

He vowed to reverse the concessions that Barak had been willing to make to the Palestinians, declaring that disputed Jerusalem will remain the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people. But, striking a more conciliatory note, he said he understands that "peace requires painful concession from both sides."

Sharon also called on "our neighbors the Palestinians" to "abandon the path of violence and to return to the path of dialogue."

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, in Gaza City, said he hopes to work with the new Israeli leader to "continue the peace of the brave." In Washington, President Bush, who recently inherited a role in the peace process, said in a statement that he looks forward to working with Sharon.

Without question, Sharon's election marked a stunning comeback for a man forced from his defense minister's post in disgrace after the government held him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during Israel's 1982 invasion of that country.

Although he continued to hold various public offices, it had seemed that the opportunity to reach the highest office in the land had passed him by.

With a reputation for recklessly ignoring his superiors' orders, Sharon fought in all of Israel's wars and directed Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon. He was known for heroic exploits, such as crossing the Suez Canal to gain a decisive advantage in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and for egregious excesses, such as the 1953 raid on a West Bank village in which 69 civilians were killed.

Sharon's election was seen by many here as a rejection of the way peace has been pursued for the last eight years, since the launching of the landmark Oslo land-for-peace process, and especially Barak's handling of the fateful Camp David summit last summer.

Uzi Landau, a senior legislator from Sharon's Likud Party, said the vote represented "the collapse of a vision that appeasement can bring peace."

"The peace process is in the deep freeze," Barak's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, allowed, "but not forever."

Sharon advocates a harder line against Palestinians and has already said he won't grant the same territorial concessions that Barak promised. He has said he won't dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, won't give Palestinians a foothold in the disputed capital of Jerusalem and will yield to the Palestinians essentially no more land than what they have now.

No negotiations will resume, Sharon said, until violence that has swept the West Bank and Gaza for the last four months and claimed nearly 400 lives stops. Although most of the dead have been Palestinian, Arafat has not been able--or willing--to halt the regular gun battles and clashes.

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