Sharon's Party Is Winner In Israel

A Jewish settler in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, lets his daughter cast his ballot in the Israeli general elections.
A Jewish settler in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, lets his daughter cast his ballot in the Israeli general elections. (By Oded Balilty -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

JERUSALEM, March 28 -- The Kadima party led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won the most seats in Israel's parliamentary elections Tuesday, in a vote that hinged on his plan to draw the country's final borders through unilateral withdrawals from the Palestinian territories.

But the election, which drew one of the lowest voter turnouts in Israeli history, left Kadima with an uncertain mandate to move ahead with a program that once appeared to have clear support from Israelis.

With virtually all of the votes counted, Kadima, the centrist party that Ariel Sharon founded four months ago after evacuating Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, had won 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. Sharon remains in a coma after suffering a massive stroke in January, and Kadima's projected strength had slipped a dozen seats in pre-election opinion polls since then.

"It is up to us, all of us, to put a new stamp on the life of Israel," Olmert said to cheering supporters in a post-election call for unity.

Kadima did not win even half of the 61 seats necessary for a parliamentary majority, ensuring that Olmert will have to enlist other parties to form a coalition government. The most likely partner is the Labor Party under former union leader Amir Peretz, which finished second with 20 seats. Peretz expanded the founding Zionist movement's base in a campaign that emphasized raising the minimum wage, improving social services and pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians to end the conflict. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party finished third with 13 seats.

The results also signaled a dramatic shift within the political wing most opposed to leaving the Palestinian territories, a group now highly fragmented among sectarian, secular and religious-nationalist parties.

The Likud Party, led by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, dropped further than any previous governing party, finishing in fifth place with 11 seats. Sharon led Likud to victory in the past two elections. But he left the party, long the primary sponsor of Israel's settlement movement, in November after alienating its base with his Gaza evacuation.

"The Likud has been dealt a heavy blow, the second that we have absorbed since the former head of the party left and left behind a broken, shattered movement," Netanyahu said to supporters. "We will rehabilitate our movement. We will continue on our path. We will cling to it."

The party Israel Is Our Home finished with 12 seats, making it the largest nationalist faction. The party is led by Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova who proposes redrawing Israel's border to exclude roughly 150,000 of the Jewish state's Arab citizens. His message attracted Israel's large bloc of Russian-speaking voters, who have traditionally supported Sharon.

"This is just the beginning of the future fight for Israel," Lieberman said to supporters. "I am proud that we have just become the largest party in the nationalist camp, and I am certain that next time we will be the ruling party."

Only 63.2 percent of Israel's roughly 5 million eligible voters cast ballots after a low-energy campaign that belied the pressing questions facing the next government. The next prime minister must determine Israel's new relationship with the Palestinian Authority, now led by the radical Islamic group Hamas, and decide how to proceed on matters of peace.

Olmert, a 60-year-old lawyer and former Jerusalem mayor, outlined plans to withdraw from scattered West Bank settlements and draw Israel's border roughly along the line of the separation barrier due to be completed next year. Jerusalem and the largest settlement blocs would remain in Israel's hands under Olmert's plan, which he said he intends to carry out before the end of his four-year term.

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