Sharon vows to fight for peace
Sharon asks Barak to join unity government
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon promised Tuesday to restore security to Israel and called on Palestinians to renounce violence as he accepted his landslide victory.
The hard-line former general said that a peace agreement with the Palestinians would require "painful compromises" from both sides but any negotiations would be based on security for all parties.
"The government, under my leadership, will act to restore security to the citizens of Israel and to achieve a genuine peace and stability to the area," he said.
Sharon gave his victory speech three hours after Israeli TV exit polls projected a massive victory for the 72-year-old Likud party leader. It was a stunning comeback for a politician whose election was once thought almost impossible.
Sharon also urged the Palestinians to renounce violence. "I call on our Palestinian neighbors to cast off violence and return to the path of dialogue and solving the conflicts between us by peaceful means," he said.
But he also pledged to "strengthen and consolidate a united Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the eternal capital of the Jewish people." Palestinians also consider the city to be their capital and the status of Jerusalem has been one of main sticking points in peace talks.
Sharon also made a push for national unity, saying "the state of Israel has embarked on a new path ... of domestic unity."
With 83 percent of the vote counted, Sharon had 62.1 percent to incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak's 37.8 percent. Projections from Israel's Channel 1 and Channel 2 television showed that Sharon would be the victor by a margin of 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent for Barak.
Barak conceded defeat an hour after the exit polls were released. He also surprised his supporters by saying he would resign his seat in parliament and step down as head of the Labor Party as soon as a new government was formed.
Barak said he respected the "verdict of democracy" and said he had called Sharon to offer his congratulations. He said that his government had been ahead of its time.
"My friends, we have lost the battle but we will win the war," he said to cheers from his supporters.
The Palestinian reaction was one of skepticism. Saeb Erakat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, said he thought the vote reflected that Israeli society was not ready for peace with the Palestinians.
"The shortest way to security and peace is not by harming the Palestinians more ... it is ending your occupation," he said.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha'ath repeated the assertion by the Palestinian Authority that it will deal with Sharon as prime minister. But Sha'ath expressed hope that the hard-line Sharon would change once in office.
"If we judge him by history, that is dismal. If we judge him by his campaign, there's not much more hope," he said.
Projections from Israel's Channel 1 and Channel 2 television showed Sharon winning 59.5 percent of the vote to Barak's 40.5 percent. The exit polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Channel 1 is government-owned. Channel 2 is a commercial channel.
Israeli election officials said that with 74 percent of the vote counted, Ariel Sharon was leading Ehud Barak 61 percent to 39 percent.
Barak said he would resign as the Labor Party's leader and from the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and retire from public life for some time.
But he said that his methods of pursuing peace with the Palestinians was the "one and only true path."
"The true path requires courage ... and it is possible that the public is not fully ready for the painful truth," Barak said. "The truth will prevail."
'The end of Oslo'
At Sharon's headquarters in Tel Aviv, supporters danced with joy and shouted "The end of Oslo," a reference to the interim peace accord that Sharon opposed.
Sharon has consistently led Barak in opinion polls leading up to Tuesday's vote and was the expected winner. The defeat is a stinging rebuke to Barak, who warned that Sharon could lead Israel into a war and pleaded with voters for a renewed mandate to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Sharon, an ex-general whose nickname is "Bulldozer," had campaigned on the promise to restore security to Israel, promising not to negotiate with the Palestinians until the current round of violence stops.
Sharon called Barak immediately after the polls closed and asked him to join a unity government. Barak said he would consider a unity government if it were possible to work out a "joint, realistic plan of action." But if that did not happen, Barak said the Labor Party would be a "combatant in opposition" and stand up for its principles.
The turnout was estimated by Israeli election officials to be around 62 percent, the lowest turnout of any major election in the history of Israel.
The Israeli Central Election Committee will announce the official results on February 13. Should Sharon be declared the winner, he will have 45 days to form a new government while Barak would remain in a caretaker role until Sharon assumes office.
A rebuke of Barak
Limor Livnat, a Likud member of the Knesset, said the election was a clear rejection of Barak and his approach to peace talks with the Palestinians, and an endorsement of a unity government.
"We want a unity government together, we want to go together to gain peace," Livnat said in an interview on CNN.
Collette Avital, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, said Barak's defeat was due to a combination of a high turnout of Orthodox Jewish Israelis for Sharon while Israeli Arabs, who typically vote Labor, appeared to boycott the election.
"It is not impossible that within a year, we will be back," she said.
Michael Melchior, a member of Barak's government, said the election was a blow to Barak but not to the peace process.
"Sharon could have not been elected if he hadn't presented himself as 'Mr. Peace' over the past two months," he said.
Sharon must balance Knesset factions
Sharon will likely have a difficult time dealing with the current Knesset, which is deeply divided and was not up for election Tuesday, which was the first election in which Israeli voters cast ballots only for prime minister.
Michael Bar Zohar, a former Labor Party Knesset member, said a unity government would be a must for Sharon.
"He doesn't want to be a prisoner of the extreme right wing, which supports him today, or the ultra-Orthodox," Zohar told CNN.
Barak has said he has no interest in being involved in what he called an "extremist" government, and many observers expect new parliamentary elections to come soon. Because of that, Zohar said, Tuesday's vote "brings to no result whatsoever."
"We didn't need it. We could have gone to a national election and formed a new government," he said.
Israeli Arabs appear to boycott polls
Thousands of activists on both sides have been sent out to encourage potential voters to cast their ballots. But the vote came after a campaign that observers consider one of the most lackluster in the history of Israel. Turnout reflected that, dropping to 62 percent from 78 percent in the 1999 election.
Voters from Israel's center and left wing are disillusioned with Barak's failure to clinch a peace deal, a CNN analysis of polling data has shown, and because of the violence that has killed at least 63 Israelis since September 29th.
The campaign has generated even less enthusiasm among many Israeli Arabs who apparently boycotted the vote. Israeli Arabs make up 12 percent of the electorate and who voted heavily for Barak in 1999.
There were a little more than 4.5 million voters eligible to cast ballots in the election. At Umm el Fahm, an Arab Israeli town of about 18,000 people in northern Israel, voters were staying away from the polls. Voting officials said at a polling station for 760 people, only 10 had cast ballots by noon.
Barak's supporters were particularly concerned about a low turnout among Arab Israelis, who have been a key part of the Labor Party's winning margins in the past
But Arab voters have expressed dissatisfaction at Barak's handling of the current round of violence and his slowness to express regret over the killing of Arab Israelis during the conflict. Barak offered a statement of "deep sadness" for those killings on Sunday.
Barak reached out again to Arab Israelis Tuesday morning, saying he was "deeply sorry" for the death of a youngster who was killed in October, and he urged them to vote.
But CNN reporters saw a 20-car convoy driving through Umm el Fahm displaying black and Palestinian flags. The convoy displayed a banner reading, "I will vote when the martyrs vote," indicating they would not be casting ballots.
And the disaffection among the electorate extends beyond the Arab community. At a Tel Aviv polling station, normally a Labor Party stronghold, one woman said, "I don't like both of them."
"It wasn't difficult. There is one of them I prefer less than the other, let's put it that way," she said. "My vote is for Barak, not Sharon, because he is the lesser of the evils."
But another voter said he was voting for Sharon because "Barak is a crazy man. He sells everything without getting anything."
Asked about Barak's charge that Sharon would lead Israel into a war, the man said, "I hope he will behave like a human being."
Sharon, Barak are former generals
Tuesday's balloting is considered by many as a referendum on how Israel should deal with its Palestinian neighbors.
Barak, 58, has repeatedly tried to paint Sharon as an extremist who would plunge Israel into a war. Sharon, 72, has attempted to stay out of the limelight, running ads that show him as a grandfather and asserting only he is strong enough to bring security to the country.
Both men are former generals with a long history in Israeli politics. Barak came to power as the peace candidate and has spent most of his tenure seeking an accord with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while Sharon, a former defense minister, is considered Israel's leading security hawk.
Barak voted in his home district of Kochav Ya'ir, while Sharon cast his ballot in Jerusalem.
"This vote is about the future of Jerusalem," Sharon said. "Whoever wants to keep the unity and wholeness of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty forever and ever needs to vote for me. I will guard Jerusalem."
Sharon's campaign was so confident that the candidate made no campaign appearances Monday, instead concentrating on how to form a government.
CNN News Editor Randall H. Harber, Correspondents Mike Hanna and Ben Wedeman and Reuters contributed to this report.
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