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Sharon claims victory in Israeli election

sharon
Sharon at a victory celebration with his supporters  

Barak says he'll retreat from public life


In this story:

Israeli Arabs appear to boycott polls

Exit polls have a checkered history

U.S. reaction

Winner must balance Knesset factions

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Hawkish Likud party leader Ariel Sharon claimed victory early Wednesday, in Israel's special election for prime minister.

"Today the state of Israel has embarked on a new path," he told cheering supporters who had been celebrating for hours before he appeared.

The former Israeli army general known as "the bulldozer" gave his victory address at his Tel Aviv, Israel headquarters.

Sharon said he had received a call from U.S. President George W. Bush congratulating him and saying how remarkable it was that he had been elected president and Sharon had been elected prime minister.

Sharon also spoke of Israel traveling on a "difficult path toward security and peace."

"The government I set out will work toward ... a united Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people," he said, referring to the Palestinian goal that traditionally Arab East Jerusalem become the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

He called on the Palestinians to renounce violence and work toward peace and mutual security.

 VIDEO
Ehud Barak delivers concession speech to Labor Party supporters (February 6)

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Ehud Barak delivers concession speech to Labor Party supporters - Part 2 (February 6)

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reacts to Sharon's projected victory in Israel (February 6)

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviews Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat about the Israeli election (February 6)

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CNN International coverage of Israeli TV projecting Sharon to win (February 6)

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In Tel Aviv, the young and the old go to the polls (February 6)

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TEST Natan Sharansky of the Israel is our Home party: Barak's campaign had no influence
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CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider speculates about how long Sharon will last as prime minister
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Political analyst Chemi Shalev comments on the relationship between the election and the Mideast peace process
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CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports on the low turnout in the election
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hariri Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri: Israelis want security without the peace
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Barak expresses hope after casting his vote
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"I am aware that peace requires painful compromises. Any agreements will be based on security," Sharon said.

"The government I set out will work toward ... a united Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people," he said, referring to the Palestinian goal that Jerusalem become the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Earlier Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded defeat.

Barak made his concession speech before a disappointed, yet cheerful, crowd of supporters in Tel Aviv,Israel.

"The voters have spoken and I respect the verdict of democracy," Barak said. "We have lost the battle, but we will win the war," he said, referring to Barak's quest to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Barak said he would not rule out the possibility that he would join a so-called unity government under Sharon to avert political fighting that is now likely in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

"I am aware of the desire among the people for such a government but unity cannot be a substitute for policy."

"If it is possible to work out a realistic plan for genuine policies (toward peace) then a unity government could be successful," Barak said. He then thanked his supporters and shocked them by announcing that he would resign from the Knesset, as leader of the Labour Party and leave public life.

"It was a big surprise for all of us," Israeli Minister of Immigration Yuli Tamir told CNN.

Israeli election officials said Tuesday night that with 58 percent of the vote counted, Ariel Sharon was leading Ehud Barak 60.1 percent to 39.8 percent.

Exit polls quoted by Israel's Channel 1 television gave Sharon 59.5 percent of the vote to Barak's 40 percent.

But if the projections hold up, the defeat would be a stinging rebuke to Barak who warned that Sharon could lead Israel into a war and pleaded with voters to allow him to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians.

At Sharon's headquarters in Tel Aviv, supporters danced with joy while shouts of "The end of Oslo!" were heard, referring to the interim peace accord that Sharon opposed.

The first reaction from the Palestinian side to a likely Sharon victory came from chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. "If he comes to us and he wants to take us to eat the apple from the beginning, to go back to the zero point, I'm afraid that we will not have a peace process anymore," Erakat told CNN. "I'm afraid that I would say 'God help the Palestinians and Israelis,' because to have a meaningful peace process means that we will continue where we left off."

But Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat reacted to the news with caution, urging the continuance of a peace partnership with a Sharon government "not only on the Palestinian track (but) the Lebanese track and the Syrian track so that we can have a new Middle East."

Sharon has consistently led Barak in opinion polls leading up to Tuesday's vote and was the expected winner. Polls closed at 10 p.m. (3 p.m. EST)

The turnout was estimated by Israeli election officials to be around 62 percent for the 4.5 million eligible voters, the lowest turnout of any major election in the history of Israel. In the 1999 elections, turnout was 78.7 percent.

Israeli Arabs appear to boycott polls

Voter turnout was low throughout all Israeli Arab villages, according to the Israeli-Arab Center for Equality. The average percentage of turnout did not exceed 15 percent. In Nazareth, the town with the largest number of Israeli Arabs, turnout was 7 percent, according to the center.

In one Israeli Arab village, home to 304 eligible voters, 84 votes were cast. Of those votes, 63 ballots were blank, in protest against Israeli policies during the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and 13 Israeli Arabs who were killed in clashes in October. Of the ballots that were not blank, 14 votes were for Barak and seven were for Sharon.

Exit polls have a checkered history

However, Israeli TV exit polls have not always been an accurate reflection of the voting. The two polling companies say their forecasts are fairly accurate, but other pollsters say the system is flawed, especially when the race is close.

Five years ago, Labor Party candidate Shimon Peres was leading by 5 points at poll closing in the Israeli TV exit polls, but the final numbers showed the winner to be former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a very slim winning margin of less than one percent.

The Israeli Central Election Committee will announce the official results 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.

Whoever wins will have an uphill battle to lead the country, because the deeply split Knesset is not up for re-election. Tuesday's vote is the first election in which Israeli voters are electing only the prime minister.

U.S. reaction

The new U.S. administration is deeply concerned that the apparent victory by Sharon will lead to more Israeli-Palestinian violence, not only in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but throughout the Arab world, CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel reports.

Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have been speaking with U.S. allies in the Middle East, urging restraint.

"For the time being the Bush administration says it's important to watch and wait as the next Israeli prime minister arranges his new government," Powell said. "This administration will keeps its fingers crossed the next Israeli leader will exercise restraint and won't be tested any time soon."

But Powell acknowledged the U.S. can do little else but "jawboning" to encourage the region to remain calm.

"As a practical matter that is pretty much all we can do right now, and hope that the leaders in the region recognize the absolute importance in controlling the passions and controlling the emotions," he said. "If they do that and if they give the next Israeli government time to establish its policies then good things will flow from that besides just jawboning."

Responding to concerns that the United States would take a more hands-off approach to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, Powell insisted the United States would not be "standoffish."

"Whoever wins that election," the United States stands ready to be engaged in the quest for peace," he said, but added that "during this very, very delicate time immediately following the election, we do nothing."

Powell also suggested that the Bush administration had much broader objectives in the Middle East, and would be consulting a wide range of Arab allies in the region as it develops its policy.

Winner must balance Knesset factions

The Israeli Central Election Committee will announce the official results February 13. The winning candidate then has 45 days to form a government, and Barak will remain in a caretaker role until the new government assumes office.

Tuesday's vote is the first in which Israeli voters are electing only the prime minister. Whoever wins will have an uphill battle to lead the country, because the deeply split Knesset is not up for re-election.

Sharon has said that if he wins, he will immediately attempt to form a national unity government that would include Barak's Labor Party. Michael Bar Zohar, a former Labor Party Knesset member, said that 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.

CNN has learned that Sharon telephoned Barak on Tuesday and urged him to join a government of national unity.

Barak has said he has no interest in being involved in what he called an "extremist" government. But a key Barak aide said Monday night if Sharon wins and Barak joins the government, "he might be able to help steer the action."

Many expect new parliamentary elections to come soon, however, and if Labor is a partner in a Sharon government, "We will not have the opportunity to build ourselves," the Barak aide said.

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.



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Israel ratchets up security as election nears
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Barak tries to coax Israeli Arabs to polls as vote nears
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Blow for Barak as Rabbis back Sharon
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Barak: 'Fate of Israel' at stake in election
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Barak refuses to stand aside
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Hope for new Mideast summit
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Sharon calls peace talks a campaign ploy by Barak
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Mideast negotiators want to continue talks after Israeli elections
January 27, 2001

RELATED SITES:
Israeli Prime Minister's Office
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
Likud
Meretz Party
Avoda (Labour) Party
World Economic Forum
Palestinian National Authority
PLO Negotiations Affairs Department
Israel Defense Forces
Palestinian Red Crescent
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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