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 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 07:01 GMT
Sharon hails 'historic' triumph
Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (2nd from left)
Sharon is seeking another national unity government
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hailed his Likud Party's election triumph as "historic" after official results gave it a convincing victory over its leftist rivals.

SEATS IN PARLIAMENT
Likud 37
Labour 19
Shinui 15
Shas 11
National Union bloc 7
Meretz 6
Nat. Religious Party 5
United Torah Judaism 5
Hadash 4
Balad 3
Yisrael B'Aliyah 2
One Nation 4
Ra'am 3
Ale Yarok 0
Herut 0
Source: Provisional official result
In a vote which produced the lowest turnout in Israeli election history, Likud captured 37 seats - almost doubling its representation in the Knesset (parliament).

The emphatically secular Shinui Party also did well, becoming the third largest grouping in parliament.

However the main opposition Labour Party suffered its worst ever election defeat, having failed to woo voters frustrated by continued Palestinian suicide attacks.

Party leader Amram Mitzna has ruled out joining a right-wing coalition.

Palestinians have described the outcome as counter to the interests of peace, and warned their situation was likely to deteriorate further.

'Unity government'

Addressing a crowd of cheering supporters in Tel Aviv in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mr Sharon called for Israelis to unite against external threats.

Amram Mitzna
It is no shame to be in the opposition, and I promise you that our time there will be short

Labour leader Amram Mitzna
"The differences between us are dwarfed by the murderous hatred of the terror organisations," he said.

He added that differences "should not become a barrier for national unity", and called on Zionist parties to aid the formation of a "unity government".

But Mr Mitzna remained defiant, saying the Labour Party wanted to replace Mr Sharon not join him.

"Politics are a marathon, and we are only in the first few kilometres," he said as he acknowledged defeat.

"It is no shame to be in the opposition, and I promise you that our time there will be short."

And the centrist Shinui party further complicated matters when its leader, Yosef 'Tommy' Lapid, said that it would only join a coalition in which right-wing religious parties were not represented.

Political horse-trading

The crushing blow inflicted on Israel's left-wing parties contrasted with the successes of centrist and right-wing parties, with centrist, secular Shinui Party surpassing the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party to become the new third-largest party, taking 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Palestinians in Gaza City watching Israeli election on television
Many Palestinians were dismayed by the results
The leader of the dovish Meretz party, Yossi Sarid, resigned after early exit polls showed his party had lost four seats.

Although the results represent a victory for Mr Sharon, he now faces a period of political horse-trading as he attempts to build a coalition government.

The Israeli leader may have to lead a coalition comprising right-wing and religious parties such as Shas, which won 11 seats.

Correspondents say such a narrow coalition would inhibit Mr Sharon's ability to make concessions to the Palestinians and would likely be short-lived.

Palestinians dismay

Palestinian officials voiced disappointment with the results.

"This is a heavy blow to a peaceful settlement. The Israelis have committed an historic mistake which they and the Palestinians will regret," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Israeli election officials said turnout among voters was the lowest in the state's 55-year history, with 69% of the 4.7 million-strong electorate participating.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's James Reynolds
"In victory keen to talk about national unity"
  Amram Mitzna, Labour leader
"We offer a way for hope.. the electorate have chosen a different way"
  Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Sha'ath
"We have to expect difficult days ahead"

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28 Jan 03 | Middle East
28 Jan 03 | Middle East
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26 Jan 03 | Middle East
26 Jan 03 | Media reports
27 Jan 03 | Middle East
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