Sharon protege claims victory in Israeli election

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

JERUSALEM -- A giant portrait of Ariel Sharon towered over the stage as his protege, Ehud Olmert, declared victory in Israel's elections. The symbolism was fitting, since the prime minister's aura hung over the entire campaign.

Olmert, who promised he would follow in his mentor's footsteps, began his speech with a nod toward Hadassah Hospital, where Sharon was lying in a coma after a devastating stroke in January.

The acting prime minister then launched into his vision for the future, saying he will seek negotiations with the Palestinians but act on his own if necessary to draw final borders. Olmert has said that if elected he would withdraw from much of the West Bank and set Israel's borders by 2010.

The turnout was the lowest in Israel's history, and the results showed voters turning away from conventional political parties to an assortment of third parties. The aftermath will likely be a period of difficult negotiations between Olmert and potential coalition partners.

"Today, Israeli democracy has spoken its piece, in a loud and clear voice," Olmert declared. "Israel wants Kadima," which means forward in Hebrew.

Labor leader Amirt Peretz and Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu called Olmert to congratulate him, as did British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Standing below a massive portrait of Sharon, Olmert said he was ready for new peace talks and was prepared to make painful compromises.

such as uprooting some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and allowing Palestinians to have a state.

"In the coming period, we will move to set the final borders of the state of Israel, a Jewish state with a Jewish majority," Olmert said. "We will try to achieve this in an agreement with the Palestinians."

Olmert has said he would govern only with parties that accept his program, and projections showed a center-left coalition capturing 61 to 65 seats in the 120-member parliament. The hawkish parties fell far short of their plan to win enough seats to block Olmert's program.

As Israel held its election, the Palestinian parliament approved a new Cabinet led by the Hamas militant group, which refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel's right to exist.

Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Al-Jazeera television that he opposed Olmert's plan. "Such a plan definitely won't be accepted by the Palestinian people or the Palestinian government," he said.

Aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate from the Fatah Party, called for immediately renewing talks on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he heads.

Olmert has said he supports the road map but will not wait indefinitely for a peace deal and would move unilaterally after a reasonable period of time.

Israeli officials have ruled out talks with Hamas unless the Islamic group renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist, demands Hamas has so far rejected. It remains unclear whether Olmert would negotiate with Abbas without a change in Hamas' position.

With results in from 96 percent of the polling stations, Kadima was winning 28 seats, Labor 20 and Likud 11.

The leader of the largest party is traditionally asked first to try to form a ruling coalition. Whether Olmert chooses to form a government with dovish parties or more hardline factions could determine his ability to carry out his plan.

Olmert could form a coalition with Labor, the dovish Meretz and a party that advocates pensions for retirees, or he could add the ultra-Orthodox Shas or United Torah Judaism parties to his government.

Olmert, the vice prime minister and former mayor of Jerusalem, took over the party after Sharon suffered a devastating Jan. 4 stroke and immediately became the favorite to win the elections. Much of Kadima's campaign was built around Sharon, Israel's most popular politician, and his legacy resonated with many voters.

"It was important for me to vote, to continue the way of Sharon," said Rina Golan, 65, who voted for Kadima.

But Sharon had been much more circumspect than Olmert about his postelection plans. He never spoke of drawing final borders, and said there would not be an additional unilateral pullout in the West Bank.

Labor's total represented a strong showing by Peretz, who ran on a social platform advocating a higher minimum wage and guaranteed pensions for the elderly.

"The Labor Party has regained its credibility," said Labor lawmaker Colette Avital.

Likud, which had dominated Israeli politics for decades, was crushed, appearing to capture less than a third of the 38 seats it won in the last election. Netanyahu, the former prime minister and current party head, warned that further unilateral withdrawals would bring Hamas closer to Israel.

"We have no doubt that the Likud suffered a hard blow," Netanyahu told his party activists. He blamed Sharon, who bolted Likud to form Kadima, for leaving behind "a broken and shattered party."

A strong majority of voters turned away from Likud and Labor, the only two parties that have ever ruled Israel, to vote for the new Kadima and fringe parties. Though other attempts to create a strong centrist party in Israel have failed, analysts said Sharon's personal popularity gave Kadima its edge.

Two marginal parties posted strong showings in the exit polls.

Israel Beitenu, a party aimed at Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union, would like to redraw Israel's borders to put fewer Arabs and more Jews inside. It posted a double-digit showing as expected, with partial results giving it 12 seats. The party has two lawmakers in the outgoing parliament.

The pensioners' party appeared to be the surprise protest vote of the election taking seven seats, the partial returns showed. The party, headed by former Mossad spymaster Rafi Eitan, who oversaw a sensational espionage operation against the U.S. in the 1980s, was not represented in the last parliament. Kadima said this party was a natural coalition partner for Olmert.

The Shas party was projected to get 13 seats.

The record low voter turnout, 63.2 percent, was attributed partly to Kadima's dominance during the campaign. But the apathy was also a reflection of Israelis' disillusionment with rampant government corruption and veteran politicians' switching parties, which many saw as purely opportunistic.

"In the coming period, we will move to set the final borders of the state of Israel, a Jewish state with a Jewish majority," Olmert said. "We will try to achieve this in an agreement with the Palestinians."

Olmert has said he would govern only with parties that accept his program, and projections showed a center-left coalition capturing 61 to 65 seats in the 120-member parliament. The hawkish parties fell far short of their plan to win enough seats to block Olmert's program.

As Israel held its election, the Palestinian parliament approved a new Cabinet led by the Hamas militant group, which refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel's right to exist.

Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Al-Jazeera television that he opposed Olmert's plan. "Such a plan definitely won't be accepted by the Palestinian people or the Palestinian government," he said.

Aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate from the Fatah Party, called for immediately renewing talks on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he heads.

Olmert has said he supports the road map but will not wait indefinitely for a peace deal and would move unilaterally after a reasonable period of time.

Israeli officials have ruled out talks with Hamas unless the Islamic group renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist, demands Hamas has so far rejected. It remains unclear whether Olmert would negotiate with Abbas without a change in Hamas' position.

With results in from 90 percent of the polling stations, Kadima was winning 29 seats, Labor 20 and Likud 12.

That was slightly below TV projections, which showed Kadima winning 29 to 32 seats, fewer than the 34 seats projected in recent polls.

The leader of the largest party is traditionally asked first to try to form a ruling coalition. Whether Olmert chooses to form a government with dovish parties or more hardline factions could determine his ability to carry out his plan.

Olmert could form a coalition with Labor, the dovish Meretz and a party that advocates pensions for retirees, or he could add the ultra-Orthodox Shas or United Torah Judaism parties to his government.

Olmert, the vice prime minister and former mayor of Jerusalem, took over the party after Sharon suffered a devastating Jan. 4 stroke and immediately became the favorite to win the elections. Much of Kadima's campaign was built around Sharon, Israel's most popular politician, and his legacy resonated with many voters.

"It was important for me to vote, to continue the way of Sharon," said Rina Golan, 65, who voted for Kadima.

But Sharon had been much more circumspect than Olmert about his postelection plans. He never spoke of drawing final borders, and said there would not be an additional unilateral pullout in the West Bank.

Labor's total represented a strong showing by new party leader Amir Peretz, who ran on a social platform advocating a higher minimum wage and guaranteed pensions for the elderly.

"The Labor Party has regained its credibility," said Labor lawmaker Colette Avital.

Likud, which had dominated Israeli politics for decades, was crushed, appearing to capture less than a third of the 38 seats it won in the last election. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister and current party head, warned that further unilateral withdrawals would bring Hamas closer to Israel.

"We have no doubt that the Likud suffered a hard blow," Netanyahu told his party activists. He blamed Sharon, who bolted Likud to form Kadima, for leaving behind "a broken and shattered party."

A strong majority of voters turned away from Likud and Labor, the only two parties that have ever ruled Israel, to vote for the new Kadima and fringe parties. Though other attempts to create a strong centrist party in Israel have failed, analysts said Sharon's personal popularity gave Kadima its edge.

Two marginal parties posted strong showings in the exit polls.

Israel Beitenu, a party aimed at Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union, would like to redraw Israel's borders to put fewer Arabs and more Jews inside. It posted a double-digit showing as expected, with partial results giving it 11 seats. The party has two lawmakers in the outgoing parliament.

The pensioners' party appeared to be the surprise protest vote of the election taking as many as eight seats, the exit polls showed. The party, headed by former Mossad spymaster Rafi Eitan, who oversaw a sensational espionage operation against the U.S. in the 1980s, was not represented in the last parliament. Kadima said this party was a natural coalition partner for Olmert.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party was projected to get 12 seats, according to the partial results.

The issues at stake in the election -- the future of relations with the Palestinians and Israel's presence in the West Bank -- were momentous, but the turnout, 63.2 percent, was the lowest ever for an Israeli parliamentary election.

The voter apathy in Israel's sixth election since 1992 was attributed partly to Kadima's wire-to-wire dominance during the campaign and partly to Israeli's disillusionment with rampant government corruption and party switching by veteran politicians that was viewed as purely opportunistic.

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