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Sharon wins leadership battle on 'difficult day'

sharon
Sharon and Netanyahu stand Thursday for a moment of silence in tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Kenya.

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ISRAELI ELECTIONS
Israel will hold parliamentary elections January 28 to choose a new Knesset and prime minister.  Here is how Israeli elections work:
• Every Israeli citizen 18 and older is eligible to vote.
• The electorate casts votes for the party instead of individual candidates.
• Parties get a percentage of the 120 seats in the Knesset equal to the percentage of the vote they received.
• Following the election, the president chooses a prime minister-designate who has 28 days to submit a list of government ministers.

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defeated Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for control of the Likud party Thursday in a primary election that was scarred by a Palestinian gun attack on a polling station and twin terror attacks against Israelis in Kenya.

In his victory speech, Sharon said the nation must unite to fight terrorism.

"This is not a night to celebrate. We had some terrible terrorist attacks today against Israelis," he said. "Israel will combat mercilessly those who engage in bloodletting. We are a strong people and we will not give in to terrorism."

He said it had been a "difficult day" for Israel, and that he was honored to be chosen to continue to lead Likud.

"I am excited at this privilege to be able to lead this magnificent movement," Sharon said. "Today, we've proven that Likud is the biggest party in Israel. Today, we are standing before the entire Israeli public, we are united."

Sharon and the dovish Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party candidate who has promised to immediately restart talks with the Palestinians, will face each other in January's election for prime minister.

Sharon is heavily favored by most Israeli political pundits to win re-election to the post.

The polls had barely opened Thursday when news came from Kenya. In one, a car bomb in Mombasa gutted a hotel owned by an Israeli company, killing 16 people, including three Israelis, two of them brothers ages 12 and 13. In the other incident, terrorists fired missiles from Mombasa at an Israeli charter jet, missing the plane.

Soon afterward, in Israel, two Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a Likud polling station and the nearby central bus station in Beit Shean, killing five Israelis.

Sharon exhorted Israelis not to let the attacks affect their plans to cast their ballots. "Go out and vote!" he urged.

"The goal of Arab terrorists today is to influence the Israeli electoral campaign and our very democratic system," he said earlier in the day. "Terror is trying to frighten them and keep them at home."

The campaign had largely hinged on the ongoing war on terror. While Sharon, the ambitious former general, sent Israeli tanks and troops into most cities on the West Bank in response to Palestinian suicide bombings and ordered his army to pound virtually all of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound into rubble, Netanyahu had taken even more extreme positions in the run-up to Thursday's primary vote.

Netanyahu said if he is elected prime minister his first task would be to expel Arafat from the West Bank. He also demanded Sharon reverse course and oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

Sharon has refused to change the government's policies in the face of Netanyahu's challenges. In consultations with the United States, Sharon promised not to harm or expel Arafat.

Sharon also has in the past said he supports creation of a Palestinian state and will consider a U.S. road map calling for the creation of such a state. However, he has been vague on what he wants that state to look like.

And during his two years in office, Sharon has staunchly refused to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians while the violence continues.

Initially, the race between the two was expected to be close, but polls in recent weeks showed Sharon running away with the contest.

The election came about as a result of the unity government falling apart in late October when Labor's 24 Knesset members bolted and voted against Sharon's 2003 budget. Labor and its leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, insisted that some of the $150 million budgeted for Jewish settlements in the West Bank be diverted to social programs.

With Labor gone, Sharon was left with only 56 votes in the 120-member Knesset.

He attempted to form a new government by bringing in right-wing parties, but when the National Union Party demanded concessions Sharon was not willing to make, he called for new elections.

The Palestinian Authority also is scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections in January as part of a plan to reform its government. However, Palestinian officials said this week that with Israeli troops encircling most cities, they have not been able to prepare and it was unlikely the elections would be held in January.



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