Sharon told supporters, ”Israel has entered a new path … the path of security and true peace.” Citing the need for compromises, he urged Palestinians to end “the way of violence” and called on Barak to join him in a broad-based coalition government. He also said President Bush had telephoned with congratulations.
Israel’s two main television channels are calling Sharon, chairman of the right-wing Likud Party, the victor by some 20 percentage points. Polls have closed in Israel, and exit polling data shows Sharon winning 59.5 percent of the vote, compared to 40.5 for Barak.
Barak told supporters he had called Sharon to congratulate him. In conceding defeat, Barak also announced he will step down as Labor Party leader and resign from his seat in parliament. “The voters have spoken, and I respect their democratic decision,” Barak said.
Barak, whom Sharon had criticized for conceding too much to the Palestinians, told his supporters they had “lost a battle, but we will win the war. Our path is the one and only path, the path that will lead Israel to peace and security.”
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he hoped to work with Sharon in future peace talks. “We respect the decision of the Israeli people,” Arafat said. “We hope the peace process will continue.” Other Palestinian officials have warned that Sharon’s hard-line stances will make negotiations difficult.
Earlier in the day, Sharon, anticipating victory, said he would move to form a unity government in the nation’s parliament, the Knesset. He said a united government is necessary for successful negotiations with Palestinians.
“I will call tonight as I’ve called many times for a national unity government,” he said. “That is what can bring us the peace and security together.”
Voter turnout seemed lower than in recent years. Usually in the 80 percent range — among the highest in the democratic world — it will likely be closer to 65 percent today. Many Israeli Arabs, a key Barak constituency, appeared to be boycotting the election in protest of months of violence.
The special election was prompted by Barak’s resignation in December and the prime minister portrayed the vote as a referendum on peace. Beleaguered by failed peace talks and a months-long Palestinian uprising, Barak had warned that Sharon’s election could lead to more violence and instability.
“The choice is very clear between the extremist, no limits, no borders policy of Mr. Sharon, and our policies which, despite all the difficulties, are determined to reach peace,” Barak said Tuesday morning. “We are closer than ever in the history of the conflict to reaching an agreement.”
The hawkish Sharon has opposed concessions Barak has offered the Palestinians, refusing to give up more territory or parts of Jerusalem. He says the violence must stop before meaningful peace talks can continue.