Right-wing hawk Ariel Sharon will be the next prime minister of Israel.
RAY SUAREZ: Supporters of right- wing leader Ariel Sharon cheered when Israeli exit polls indicated a nearly 20-point victory for their candidate. Less than two hours after the polls closed, incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded the election.
EHUD BARAK: (speaking through interpreter) I promised Ariel Sharon that with the establishment of a new government under his prime ministership, and with his obtaining of the confidence of the Knesset, that the government would be transferred in an orderly fashion, as in a proper, democratically-run, civilized country. My friends, we have lost the battle, but we will win the campaign, the war.
RAY SUAREZ: Barak said he'd quit as the Labor Party leader and resign his seat in the parliament, but he did not rule out joining a national unity government with Sharon. Barak, who came into office two years ago promising peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians, was hurt by the collapse of the peace process and the ensuing violence. Barak's fate has been sealed over the last six months.
In July, at Camp David, he was unable to reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians. And in the fall, the region descended into a new cycle of violence. Most of the 400 killed have been Palestinians, but Israelis of all political stripes feared their daily security was threatened. The latest Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, followed Sharon's controversial visit on September 28 to one of East Jerusalem's most disputed holy sites. On a recent visit to New York, the 72-year-old Sharon defended his trip to the area Israelis call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al Sharif. The site is managed by an Arab religious council.
SPOKESMAN: The Temple Mount is the holiest place of the Jewish people. I hope I'll be doing that in the future as well -- no restrictions. We live in a free country. Everyone can go within the sovereign area of Israel, everywhere.
RAY SUAREZ: The incident was the latest dramatic episode in Sharon's long career as a soldier and politician. In 1953, he led an army revenge attack in the West Bank town of Kibya, killing 69 Arabs. Later in his autobiography, he wrote: "Kibya was to be a lesson. I was to inflict as many casualties as I could on the Arab home guard. I was to blow up every major building in the town."
In the 1956 Mid East war, Sharon disobeyed orders and crossed the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian soldiers ambushed and killed 41 of his troops. But Sharon was hailed for his leadership as brigadier general in the 1973 war, with a daring counterattack that pinned down the Egyptian army on the Suez Canal. In 1982, as defense minister, Sharon was the principal architect of an invasion of Southern Lebanon that took Israeli troops all the way to the outskirts of Beirut.
Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians died, and Sharon was later criticized by Israeli investigators for being indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian militias supported by Israel. Despite the Commission's recommendation that Sharon never serve again as defense minister, he continued to gain political influence as a member of parliament and in other cabinet posts. He strongly promoted Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and criticized the rival Labor Party's peace accords with the Palestinians.
But in the campaign for prime minister in the past few weeks, Sharon has promoted himself as a peacemaker, reminding Israelis, for instance, that he helped broker the Wye River Peace Accords that the conservative Likud government signed in 1998. Tonight, as the returns came in, Sharon supporters celebrated one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern Israeli history.