Thu, Feb 08, 2001 - Page 1 News List

No surprises as Sharon sweeps to victory in Israel

REUTERS , JERUSALEM

Arch-hawk Ariel Sharon's sweeping election victory plunged Middle East peacemaking into new uncertainty and presented the region with a new political landscape yesterday.

Sharon's triumph over outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Tuesday's vote alarmed left-wing Israelis, delighted the invigorated right and deepened Palestinian gloom.

Sharon, a former general reviled across the Arab world, urged the Palestinians in a victory speech to end their four-month-old uprising, and negotiate for a "realistic peace."

Sharon, 72, also urged his center-left foes to join him in a national unity government after he defeated Barak by a whopping 25 percentage points, according to nearly complete results.

Barak, 58, had billed the election, played out against a backdrop of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in years, in which hundreds of people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed since late September, as a choice between war and peace.

Conceding defeat, he quit as Labor Party leader and said he would give up his seat in parliament, only 21 months after his own sweeping election triumph, over Likud premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I call on our neighbors, the Palestinians, to abandon the path of violence and return to a path of dialogue and a peaceful solution of our disputes," Sharon told a joyful crowd of Likud party faithful, who booed when he said the word "Palestinians."

Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to President Yasser Arafat, said Palestinians would deal with any elected prime minister.

"We are ready to go immediately for any negotiations as long as the new Israeli government will commit itself to proceed on a peace process," he told Israeli radio yesterday.

But senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat voiced doubt that any meaningful negotiations with Sharon were possible.

"Sharon has been saying he wants to cancel the Oslo accord, he wants to cancel the terms of reference, he's not bound by anything we did, which is meaningless," he said.

Arafat said he would respect the election outcome and hoped the peace process would continue, although Sharon has refused to shake his hand and has ruled out talks while violence continues.

Israeli rightwingers saw Sharon's victory as an answer to prayer. Ultra-nationalist lawmaker Reha-vam Ze'evi urged him to keep his pledge to make Israel secure and renounce concessions for what Ze'evi called "a cruel and false peace."

"It will have to be proven that Sharon brings security decisively and forcefully, that Sharon does not seek excessive wars, but is committed to the security of Israel," Ze'evi wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

With 99.9 percent of votes counted, the tally showed 62.5 percent for Sharon to 37.4 for Barak. Final results must be out within a week when Sharon will have 45 days to form a coalition.

Turnout was 62 percent, unusually low for a country where 80 percent is common, reflecting Israeli malaise and a boycott by Israeli Arab voters furious at Barak over the police killing of 13 of their brethren during pro-Palestinian protests in October.

At least 383 people -- 318 Palestinians, 52 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs -- have been killed in violence that flared after Sharon visited a Jerusalem shrine holy to Muslims and Jews in late September.

Sharon vowed to "open a new page" in relations with Israeli Arabs and to heal rifts in Israeli society, many of which have deepened since the Palestinian uprising began in late September.

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