JERUSALEM, Feb. 6 (JTA) – In one of the more remarkable comebacks in Israeli political history, former Gen. Ariel Sharon completed the long road back from the disgrace of the Lebanon War when voters overwhelmingly chose him as prime minister of Israel.
Sharon’s landslide victory Tuesday was as much a product of disillusionment – with the peace process, with the ongoing Palestinian violence and with the personality of incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak – as it was an endorsement of Sharon himself.
The public’s judgment was resounding, giving Sharon a 25-point margin of victory. With 99 percent of the polling stations counted, Likud leader Sharon had 62.5 percent of the vote, compared with 37.4 percent for Barak.
By Israeli standards, it was a margin of historic proportions, and it came just 21 months after Barak swept into office with what seemed like a broad mandate.
Yet many Israelis, it appears, were disillusioned with both candidates. Voter turnout Tuesday was just under 59 percent, the lowest in the nation’s history. Israeli turnout generally is about 80 percent, among the highest rates in the democratic world.
Much of the Israeli Arab community – 12 percent of the electorate and a major source of support for Barak in the last election – boycotted the vote. Israeli Arabs are angry at Barak over the fatal shooting by police of 13 Israeli Arabs during pro-Palestinian riots in October.
Also contributing to Sharon’s victory was the fervently Orthodox community, which overwhelmingly supported him after the spiritual leaders of the haredi parties gave Sharon their endorsement – or, more accurately, urged their followers to vote against Barak.
President Bush congratulated Sharon, telling the newly elected premier that he looked forward to working with him to bring “peace and stability” to the Middle East, the White House said.
Bush placed the telephone call to Sharon shortly after Barak conceded defeat.
“The president told Prime Minister-elect Sharon he looked forward to working with him, especially with regard to advancing peace and stability in the region,” said a statement released by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Initial Arab reaction to Sharon’s victory was cautious.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said he respects the choice of the Israeli people, and hopes the new Israeli government formed by Sharon would continue the negotiations and respect agreements already signed with the Palestinians.
But Palestinian Authority official Yasser Abed Rabbo called the election of Sharon the most “foolish event” in Israeli history.
The mood at Sharon headquarters Tuesday night was predictably jubilant. Some people held signs thanking God for the Likud leader’s victory. Others declared that the Oslo peace process was over.
But the latter assessment may prove premature.
In a sharp divergence from his hawkish image, Sharon positioned himself during the campaign as a peacemaker, and many Israelis will expect him to follow through.
Just the same, it is unclear how far the peace process will progress under a Sharon government.
He said during the campaign that he would not negotiate if Palestinian violence continues, and he also vowed not to agree to the concessions Barak was reportedly willing to consider.
During his victory speech, Sharon followed through on his campaign promise to form a national unity government, calling on the Labor Party to join him “in pursuing the difficult path toward security and peace.”
He also called on the Palestinians to “cast off the path of violence and return to the path of dialogue.”
In his concession speech Tuesday night, Barak accepted responsibility for his crushing defeat – but nonetheless maintained that he had followed the right course.
“My friends, we have lost the battle, but we will win the war,” he said.
He said he was convinced of the “rightness of our path,” which he said “requires sacrifices.” He continued to recommend a separation from the Palestinians as the only recipe for a lasting peace.
Barak chided the Israeli public for not being ready for such sacrifices – and also took a parting swipe at the Palestinian leadership for not being ready to make the compromises necessary for peace.
Striking a self-congratulatory note, Barak said, “To some extent we have been ahead of our time, but I have no doubt that that time will come. The truth will win in our circles as well as theirs, because there is no other path.”
At the end of his speech, Barak resigned as leader of the Labor Party and a member of Knesset.
During his resignation speech, however, Barak left open the possibility of accepting Sharon’s invitation to form a national unity government.
Barak lost his parliamentary majority last July, when three coalition partners – disappointed by Barak’s willingness for concessions to the Palestinians – dropped out of the government on the eve of the Camp David summit.
The premier lost more support when Palestinian violence erupted late last September and continued for more than four months, as Barak continually set and then ignored ultimatums to end the fighting.
On Nov. 28, Barak acceded to the Knesset’s wish for new elections.
“You want elections. I am ready for elections,” he said defiantly.
At that time, it was unclear whether there would be general elections – for premier and a new Knesset – or special elections for prime minister only.
On Dec. 10, Barak made the surprise decision to resign, setting in motion a countdown to special elections for prime minister within 60 days.
His maneuver succeeded in convincing his strongest rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not to run. An overwhelming favorite, Netanyahu said that without new elections for the Knesset, no prime minister would be able to govern.
That, indeed, is one problem Sharon will still have to confront.