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Sharon Wins Easily in Israel

Premier faces task of building coalition as intifada persists and war threatens the region.

January 29, 2003|Laura King and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's conservative Likud Party easily won parliamentary elections Tuesday, handing the Israeli leader a mandate on his hard-line approach toward the Palestinians but leaving him with the formidable task of forming a stable government as the intifada grinds on and a possible war with Iraq looms.

Reflecting a pervasive sense of sadness and cynicism among the Israeli electorate, the turnout was the country's lowest ever in a general election.

The somber national mood, together with worries about what kind of coalition Sharon will be able to cobble together to achieve the necessary parliamentary majority, took some of the celebratory edge off the prime minister's late-night victory speech.

"We have a historic triumph ... but this is not a time for celebrations," a weary-looking Sharon told flag-waving supporters who packed a cavernous exhibition hall in Tel Aviv. Using his nickname, they chanted, "Arik, king of Israel!"

Sharon appealed to the left-leaning Labor Party to enter into a governing coalition with him, as it did after his election nearly two years ago.

"Israel needs unity; Israel needs stability," he said.

With 99% of the vote counted, Likud had 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, up significantly from its current 19. Labor trailed far behind with 19 spots, compared with 26 in the current Knesset, and the secular-rights party Shinui took 15 places, more than doubling its parliamentary representation. Shas, the largest of the religious parties, won 11 seats, down from its current 17.

Labor, the standard-bearer for Israel's peace movement, posted its worst-ever showing, dropping below 20 seats for the first time in its history.

At party headquarters in Tel Aviv, the mood was despondent, with supporters staging a forlorn sing-along of old Israeli folk songs as the results began coming in.

In a concession speech delivered soon after exit polls sketched the dimensions of Labor's defeat, Amram Mitzna, the gray-haired, bearded party leader, rebuffed Sharon's plea to form a "national unity" government -- a broad-based coalition of the kind favored by many Israelis in times of crisis.

"I have no intention of abandoning our mission in return for ministerial chairs," Mitzna said. "Our path is the right one."

But he may not be able to keep that pledge. Labor was plagued by intense infighting during the election contest, and some party officials want to join Sharon rather than taking up the role of the political opposition.

Other Laborites believe, however, that their recent, 20-month partnership with Likud not only cost the party votes but ate away at its sense of identity. Labor pulled out of the coalition in late October, precipitating the early election.

The 57-year-old Mitzna, a newcomer to the national political scene, campaigned on a dovish platform, urging the resumption of peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the relinquishing of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank.

Sharon, by contrast, refuses to deal with Arafat and wants to hold talks with the Palestinians only after a sweeping political reform of the Palestinian Authority and a halt to terror attacks.

Shinui expressed willingness to join Sharon's coalition -- but only if the alliance does not include religious parties, which traditionally have been key Likud allies. The prime minister was also expected to keep up pressure on Labor to relent and join forces with him.

Without Shinui and Labor, Sharon would be forced to form a narrow government with small right-wing parties adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Under such a scenario, the prime minister might find himself his coalition's unlikely liberal champion.

"At the moment, there are so many unknowns -- depending on the configuration, the government could move in very, very different directions in its dealings with the Palestinians," said Tamar Hermann, an analyst at Tel Aviv University.

The elections offered no respite in Israel's 29-month-old conflict with the Palestinians. Four Palestinians were killed in fighting in the West Bank, another was shot dead in the Gaza Strip, and Israeli helicopters hit targets in Gaza as the vote was going on.

The voter turnout of 68% was high by the standards of the industrialized world but amounted to a poor showing in Israel, where raucous debate and enthusiastic participation in the political process traditionally are something of a national sport. Turnouts of 80% are not unusual here.

Despite the fact that so many people opted not to vote, scenes at the country's polling places showcased a small state's dizzying diversity.

Arriving at schools and community centers to cast their votes were black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jews, young soldiers in uniform, nose-ringed Tel Aviv hipsters, Ethiopian immigrants in traditional dress and animated women conversing in Russian.

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