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The BBC's Chris Morris in Tel Avi
"This margin is overwhelming"
 real 28k

The Jerusalem Report's David Horovitz
"It is a landslide"
 real 56k

The BBC's Andrew Burroughs
"The celebrations have already begun"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 21:10 GMT
Exit polls predict Sharon landslide
Likud supporters celebrate
Likud supporters celebrate their leader's projected victory
Israel's two main television stations are predicting a landslide victory for Likud leader Ariel Sharon in the Israeli prime ministerial elections.

Minutes after voting ended, at 2000GMT, the unofficial victory was declared on the basis of exit polls.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon: Reaffirmed commitment to undivided Jerusalem
Israeli television gave Mr Sharon - who favours an uncompromising stance towards the Palestinians - a lead of 19% over the incumbent, Labour leader Ehud Barak.

A BBC correspondent at the Labour party headquarters says this is a resounding defeat for Mr Barak that places a huge question over his leadership of the party.

At Likud party headquarters, raucous celebrations began even before the announcement of the exit polls.

As the result is not official, Mr Sharon will have to wait for Mr Barak to concede before he can deliver his victory speech.

Earlier on Tuesday rioting broke out in the West Bank as Israelis went to polling stations.

No enthusiasm

Turn-out was low, according to electoral officials, at about 60% - the lowest in Israeli history.

The mood at polling stations was reported to be overwhelmingly negative.

Ehud Barak after voting
Barak: Defiant despite polls
Many of those voting for Mr Sharon said they were disappointed with Mr Barak and afraid for their own security.

Most of those who have died in violence that has engulfed the Palestinian territories and Israel since September are Palestinians, but many Israelis have been killed too.

Images of bombs and drive by shootings haunt the public.

'Day of rage'

On what Palestinians called a "day of rage", demonstrators chanting ''Sharon is a butcher'' clashed with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Hebron.

Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring at least five Palestinians. Israel Radio said two soldiers were lightly wounded.

Israel has stationed a security force of 15,000 throughout Israel and barred Palestinians from leaving their towns and cities.

The Israeli Government, under my leadership, will not hold negotiations under fire and will not grant any prize for violence

Ariel Sharon

Up to 400 people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began last September.

Mr Sharon and Mr Barak differed hugely on the price of peace with the Palestinians.

Most Israelis became disenchanted with Mr Barak as the violence continued with Israeli casualties and peace talks failed to produce an agreement despite some concessions.

The 72-year-old Mr Sharon suuccessfully softened his hawkish image he gained during violent showdowns with the Palestinians in the past.

His support for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip seems to have gained him the solid support of the ultra-Orthodox community.

Nearly 50% of the influential Russian immigrant community, crucial in election terms, promised to side with him.

"The Israeli government, under my leadership, will not hold negotiations under fire and will not grant any prize for violence," he said in a newspaper interview on Monday. "Only after the violence ends... will we resume negotiations."

Mr Sharon has not explained in detail how he intends to end the Palestinian uprising.

Palestinian warnings

In early reaction to the exit polls, the Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called the election "the most foolish event in Israel's history", warning that Mr Sharon's hawkish policies would kill the peace process.

But the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah, was more conciliatory: "We will deal with Sharon who had been elected by the Israeli people," he said.

Most of Israel's one million Arab citizens, who are traditionally Labour supporters, ignored Mr Barak's appeal for support.

All but an handful stayed away from the polls as part of boycott to protest the deaths of 13 Arab Israelis shot by police in October .

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See also:

06 Feb 01 | Middle East
Sharon victory: An Arab nightmare
06 Feb 01 | Middle East
Tough task for Ariel Sharon
06 Feb 01 | Media reports
Syrian press: Mid East peace in danger
01 Feb 01 | Middle East
Five dead in new Mid-East violence
06 Feb 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel votes
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