Sharon claims 'great victory' at polls
Labor Party leader vows not to join government
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon claimed a "great victory" as Israeli voters made his Likud party the top vote-getter in Tuesday's elections and announced he would invite all Israeli political parties to join him in a new national unity government.
Sharon's Likud increased its presence in the 120-member parliament from 19 to 37 seats.
After the polls were announced, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna conceded defeat but vowed his party would not join a unity government. Labor won 19 seats, down from the 25 seats it held in the previous Knesset.
Addressing the Likud faithful in a nationally televised broadcast, the 74-year-old former general said, "This is not a time for celebration. It is a time to close ranks, to stand side-by-side to bring a victory over terrorism."
When his previous government fell apart three months ago, Sharon said, Labor presented its plan for dealing with the Palestinian conflict and he had presented his.
"The people clearly opted for my plan," Sharon said. "Political forces must follow the wishes of the electorate."
Sharon also referred to recent scandals over a loan his family obtained to pay back $1.5 million in illegal campaign contributions.
"I utterly forgive what has been said about me because what we share is much bigger than what divides us," he said.
Despite the conciliatory statement, an investigation into that loan is continuing.
"Israel needs unity. Israel needs stability," Sharon said, adding that the nation faces "the threat of a Gulf War and an economic crisis."
Despite calling Sharon to congratulate him on his victory, Mitzna denounced Sharon's policies and told supporters that Labor will remain the opposition.
"We will be there as a reminder that there is an alternative, that there is another way," Mitzna said. "It is no disgrace to be in the opposition, and I promise that our time there will be short."
Sharon, said Mitzna, wanted Labor in his government to give a "fig leaf" to what he called Likud's failed policies. "We do not intend to join him but to replace him," Mitzna said.
He called on the secular Shinui Party not to join in a right-wing coalition, but to join Labor in opposition to Sharon.
The Shinui Party won 15 seats, poll figures showed, giving it a new, prominent role in Israeli politics.
Religious vs. secular
The vote represented a significant shift away from the left and center parties toward the right wing after two years of terror attacks as a result of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
According to projections by Israel's Channel One television, the right-wing parties -- including the ultra-Orthodox -- will end up controlling 70 Knesset seats. The left would have 33 seats, and the center parties would end up with 17.
Analysts say the predominance of the right wing should make it easier for Sharon to form a stable coalition government. However, Sharon has been at odds with the religious parties, which have demanded he adopt tougher policies against the Palestinians.
Tommy Lapid, head of the Shinui, or Change Party, said he would work with Sharon to form a secular unity government, the first in Israeli history. He said if Sharon does not form a secular government, he would be forced to form an "extreme right-wing government."
Lapid has said Shinui will not join a government that includes ultra-Orthodox parties. Lapid wants to end Orthodox exemptions from military service and certain taxes.
Lapid said Labor's refusal to join with Sharon is "irresponsible" and called on the party to join a unity government.
Waiting for an emergency?
Sharon said he wants to cooperate with the United States on a roadmap for peace with the Palestinians that President George W. Bush proposed in June 2002, but he said he would not negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and would not resume talks until Palestinian violence against Israelis stops.
Mitzna campaigned on a plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from Gaza and to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. He said if those negotiations did not work, he would build a fence to separate Israel from the Palestinians on the West Bank similar to the one that surrounds Gaza.
In Ramallah, Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet, said, "We always maintained that the Israeli elections are an internal Israeli matter. As President Arafat said, we call upon the new government formed in Israel to resume negotiations on permanent-status issues that were left off in Taba [Egypt].
"Having said that, one must say that the new Israeli government will maintain the status quo as far as the frozen peace process and will continue in their policy of escalation and deterioration on the ground. There is not a single sign as a result of the Israeli election that the peace process will be revived any time soon."
The election also marked a significant turn in the number of Israelis who voted. The Central Elections Committee said shortly after the polls closed that 68 to 69 percent of Israel's 4.7 million registered voters went to the polls. That is down from 78.7 percent in Knesset elections of 1999 and marks the lowest turnout in Israeli history.
Under Israel's parliamentary electoral system, the leaders of the party winning the most seats will be asked to form a government by Israel's president. When Sharon gets the request, he will have 28 days, which may be extended another 14 days, to form a government.
Political analysts were speculating that Sharon will wait as long as possible, gambling that the United States will attack Iraq. In that event, Sharon would call for all Israeli political parties to join him in an emergency government.