JERUSALEM (BP)–Ariel Sharon urged Palestinians to return to the path of peace early Wednesday, Feb. 7, after winning a stunning victory over Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, one that spells further uncertainty for the region in the midst of a faltering diplomatic process.
With 99.9 percent of the votes counted, the 72-year-old Likud leader, a security hawk, won by a record 25-point margin over Barak, 62-37 percent, in Feb. 6’s Israeli elections.
Calling for national unity and pledging to restore security to Israelis troubled and disillusioned from 19 weeks of bloody confrontation with the Palestinians, the 72-year-old Sharon, a former army general despised by many Arabs, said he would work to “achieve true peace and stability in the region,” CNSNews.com reported Feb. 7.
“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,” he told supporters.
Sharon said President Bush had called to congratulate him and pledged to cooperate very closely with his new government.
“The president told prime minister-elect Sharon he looked forward to working with him, especially with regard to advancing peace and stability in the region,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement.
After final election results are confirmed in a week, Sharon will have 45 days to put together a coalition government. He will have his work cut out for him.
Because the special election was for prime minister only, he will have to try to hammer together a government from the same fragmented parliament with which Barak had to deal.
After forming a government, Sharon will have to pass a budget by March 31, or new elections will automatically be called three months later.
Many analysts believe Sharon’s government may have an even shorter life than Barak’s due to a troublesome direct election system instituted only five years ago, CNSNews.com reported. It has been blamed for the inability of the last two prime ministers to hold on to power.
Israel’s left-wing “peace camp” regarded Sharon’s victory as a disaster, CNSNews.com reported.
“It is a severe blow for the peace process,” far-left Meretz Knesset member Naomi Chazan told reporters. “It will make it much more difficult to achieve an agreement with our Palestinian neighbors.”
Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat said of the election result: “We respect the decision of the Israeli people.” But the Palestinian Authority’s information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, called the election of Sharon “the most foolish event in Israel’s history,” CNSNews.com reported, while chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat hinted there may be trouble ahead: “We cannot go cannot start from scratch…. We need to begin the negotiations where we left off.”
Sharon has said he will offer much less to the Palestinians than Barak did at Camp David and in talks since then. He will not surrender more than the 42 percent of the disputed territories in which virtually all Palestinians live.
He also pledged not to divide Jerusalem. The PA wants the eastern section of the city, including the highly contested Temple Mount, as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“My government will concentrate on the strengthening of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel,” Sharon vowed.
Among Israelis who opposed the current “Oslo” negotiation process, particularly after it broke down in the latest wave of bloodshed, Sharon’s victory was seen as a reprieve.
“It’s a big night, because we saved Jerusalem,” said senior Likud member Yossi Olmert.
At Labor Party headquarters the mood was somber Feb. 6 as Barak took responsibility for the crushing defeat and conceded shortly after exit polls predicted that Sharon would win by a 19-point margin.
But Barak shocked his supporters when he announced he would quit as party leader and lawmaker, leaving politics the same way his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, had after being trounced by Barak just 21 months ago.
“I am responsible for the diplomatic process of my government, and believe in its historic necessity,” Barak told supporters in a 10-minute speech.
“It is my intention after the establishment of the new government to quit the Knesset and my position as chairman of the Labor Party, to remain a member of the Labor Party, but to leave politics and diplomacy for the time being. After 41 years in the service of the country, Nava [his wife] and I deserve it,” Barak said.
Justifying the course he had charted in his negotiations with the Palestinians, Barak said he believes that the country would return to his way, saying that “we may have lost the battle, but we’ll win the war.”
He said he had chosen the “only true path” but admitted that the Israeli public had not been ready to make the sacrifices he had offered to PA Chairman Yasir Arafat.
The concessions, including a willingness to divide Jerusalem and to relinquish 95 percent of the disputed West Bank, were rejected by Arafat as inadequate.
Barak did not rule out the possibility that Labor could join Sharon in a national unity government, but analysts said his resignation makes that possibility less likely.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief for CNSNews.com. Used by permission. (BP) file photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ISRAELI TENSIONS.