Though widely expected, Likud candidate Ariel Sharon's lopsided victory in Tuesday's special election for prime minister was so potent, it drove incumbent Ehud Barak into political retirement and has left the Labor party in turmoil.
It has been a long and bumpy road back from political rock-bottom, but the oft-vilified Sharon won the confidence of nearly two-thirds of those Israelis voting yesterday and already is in the process of cobbling together a coalition government. With over 99% of the vote counted, Sharon won 62.5% of the ballots cast, while Barak trailed with 37.4%. The whopping 25% margin stood in sharp contrast to Barak's 12% win over Binyamin Netanyahu just two years ago - an incredible 37% swing.
More than anything else, the Israeli electorate sent a strong message to the Palestinian leadership and people that the days of overlooking their violence and begging them to sign a peace deal are over.
With all the polls predicting a landslide, Sharon began election day by attending the brit milah (Jewish circumcision) ceremony of his twin grandsons - Yoav and Ori. Then after voting in Jerusalem, he confidently awaited the election results.
In his late night victory speech, constantly interrupted by celebrating Likudniks, Sharon promised: "Citizens of Israel, the government, under my leadership, will act to restore security to the citizens of Israel, and to achieve genuine peace and stability in the area." He added that he knows peace demands difficult compromises from both sides and called on the Palestinians to abandon violence and return to negotiations.
Basking in the moment of glory and vindication, Sharon called once again for a national unity government. "The time has come to find what unites us... I call on the Labor Party to walk together in true partnership on the difficult path to peace and security," he said.
Over in the Labor camp, the magnitude of the impending defeat hit home at 10 in the evening, when polling stations closed and both Israeli TV news channels immediately announced the results of their exit polls of some 50,000 voters, which put Sharon's margin of victory at 59.5% to 40.5% - an unprecedented 19%.
While the news sparked jubilation at the main Sharon rally, tearful Barak supporters were seen embracing in despair. Barak took the stage at his campaign headquarters just before midnight and conceded the race at once.
"I respect the verdict of democracy and accept the electorate's will," said Barak, smiling as ever. "We lost the battle, but we will the win the war." Barak conceded, "It seems the public is not ready for the painful truth the government presented before it, and the Palestinians are not yet ready to make decisions... We were ahead of the times, but the time will come," he insisted. "The truth will win out, both on our side and on theirs, because there is no other way."
Towards the end of his concession speech, Barak shocked his supporters by announcing his resignation from politics. "I bear responsibility for the diplomatic moves of my government and believe in the vital need for them, from a historical standpoint. It is my intention, after the establishment of a new government, to resign from the Knesset and from my position as chairman of the Labor Party, to remain a member of the Labor Party, but to leave politics and diplomacy for the time being. After 41 years in the service of the country, [my wife] Nava and I deserve it."
The decision was a replay of Netanyahu's resignation from Likud after the last election, which paved the way for Sharon to take over the helm of the reeling party. In stepping down, Barak defied his own recent campaign statements that, despite his poor standing in the polls, he had no intention of calling it quits.
Barak also indicated that he would not rule out the possibility to join a unified government under Sharon to avert political fighting. "I am aware of the desire among the people for such a government, but unity cannot be a substitute for policy," he said.
The question of a Likud/Labor unity government is dominating post-election developments in Israel, with Barak leaving behind a party deeply divided and openly bickering about joining a Sharon-led coalition.
Sharon's impressive victory, unthinkable six months ago, comes one day short of the 18th anniversary of the publication of the Kahan Commission of Inquiry into the Sabra and Shatilla massacres that forced his removal as defense minister and spiked his aspirations for higher office. Throughout the just-completed campaign, Labor leaders and the left-leaning Israeli press kept a huge spotlight on this tragic episode in Sharon's career, and many of the party's staunchest doves refuse to entertain the idea of now linking hands with him.
The battle inside Labor over selecting a new chairman and deciding on a unity government actually began even before the results were made public, when party elder Shimon Peres said in a CNN interview early Tuesday that if Barak lost the election by a large margin, he would have to "draw the appropriate conclusions."
Besides Peres, the most popular figure in Labor is Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who was warmly greeted by party colleagues when entering the otherwise somber campaign hall last night. Burg told roving reporters Barak was right to resign, and that he himself would decide over the next few days whether to stand for the leadership. He did not rule out the possibility of a unity government, setting out several pre-conditions.
Reports this evening indicate Sharon has asked Labor Party Secretary-General Ra'anan Cohen to appoint a team to negotiate a unity government, and Cohen has tapped MKs Haim Ramon and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for the job. Meanwhile, Cohen has decided to submit the proposal to tomorrow's meeting of the Labor Party bureau.
But Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin is working ahead of Thursday's bureau meeting to foil the possibility of Labor teaming up with Sharon. Beilin has met with Ramon, Burg and outgoing foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami in an effort to defeat Cohen's cooperative efforts.
In the meantime, Cohen strongly objects to the appointment of Peres as temporary party chairman on the grounds that according to the party constitution, he, as secretary-general, is slated to serve in that capacity in the absence of a chairman. The two men met in Tel Aviv this evening to discuss the matter.
The disarray in Labor will hinder Sharon's effort to quickly form a coalition. Once the official election results are certified next week, he will have 45 days - until March 30 - to submit his government and policy guidelines to the Knesset for a "confidence" vote. If Sharon does not meet this deadline, another special election for prime minister only will be held 60 days thereafter.
In addition, by law the Knesset must approve an annual state budget by 31 March 2001, or the parliament is dissolved and general elections for both Knesset and prime minister automatically follow 90 days later.
Never one to waste time, Sharon has already set up a team to conduct coalition talks with Labor and other parties. The team includes Likud Director-General Uri Shani, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and former finance minister Ya'akov Neeman. Sharon will also send former foreign minister and defense minister Moshe Arens, former UN ambassador Dore Gold and former US ambassador Zalman Shoval to the US to explain Israel's policy changes.
But Sharon did take time the morning after his stunning victory to visit the grave of his wife Lily, who died last March of cancer. Later in the day, he also made a pilgrimage to the Western Wall, where he proclaimed, "I am visiting Jerusalem, capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years and the united, indivisible capital of the State of Israel with the Temple Mount at her center for all time."
Such talk is sure to infuriate the Palestinians, already weary of his hawkish reputation. Ironically, the Palestinians used his visit to the Temple Mount last September as a pretext to initiate the very violence that has now brought him to power.
Sharon sent a double message to the Palestinians in his victory speech: he is willing to negotiate with them, but he expects them to match Israeli compromises with some of their own. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat countered that any talks would have to resume where they broke off under Barak. "We cannot go back to point zero," Erekat said. That would be "a recipe for war," he fumed.
One of the major factors in the Sharon landslide was the boycott in the Arab sector, which at 12% of the electorate is an important part of the left-wing bloc. The boycott was called by community leaders to protest the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in riots at Rosh Hashana. Less than 25% voted, but political analysts assessed that even if they had turned out 100% in favor of Barak, it would not have changed the ultimate results.
The Arab boycott helped drive the overall voter turnout down to 62% - the lowest ever in Israeli history. This also was the first election for prime minister only, leaving voters with less incentive to come out to cast ballots when no Knesset seats were at stake. And while the number of those who stayed home was high, it will go down as one the nation's most unforgettable elections in its 53 year modern history.