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Sharon Victory Shows He's One of Country's Most Skillful Politicians - 2003-01-29

Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has been chosen to serve a second term after his Likud Party overwhelmingly defeated political rivals in national elections Tuesday.

Mr. Sharon, who is known as the "bulldozer" in Israeli politics, has shoved aside his political opponents with a convincing victory in national elections.

Mr. Sharon's ruling Likud Party is predicted to nearly double its number of seats in the parliament to 36, twice that of it's main rival Labor.

The result has demonstrated a major shift to the right in Israeli public opinion and underlined the dominance of Mr. Sharon.

At the hands of Mr. Sharon, the Labor Party appears to have dropped from 25 to 18 seats.

Labor's natural ally, the leftist Meretz, appears to have been cut in half, with projections that it will win only five seats.

Mr. Sharon's achievement in winning a second term in office has sealed his reputation as one of the country's most skillful politicians.

The results emphasize the continuing rise of Mr. Sharon who only two years ago engineered one of the most remarkable comebacks in Israel's political history.

Widely regarded as Israel's most brilliant military commander, he served as a career soldier before choosing to stand for parliament.

But he fell from grace as Israel's Defense Minister in 1982 after he masterminded his country's invasion into Lebanon in response to cross-border attacks by Palestinians.

The failure of the Israeli army to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut by members of a Lebanese Christian militia prompted a judicial inquiry and forced Mr. Sharon out of the Cabinet.

In spite of this, the 74-year-old former general doggedly rebuilt his reputation over 20 years as the man Israelis turn to in a time of crisis.

Just months after the start of violent clashes with the Palestinians, he easily toppled the then head of the government, Labor leader Ehud Barak in a ballot for the prime minister in 2001.

In an address to foreign correspondents in Israel earlier this month, Mr. Sharon gave this answer when asked to account for his recent political success.

"Look, maybe they tried to bury me too early and maybe not deep enough. What can I tell you," he said.

Mr. Sharon has displayed the same tenacity in winning Tuesday's ballot.

In the final weeks of the campaign, he was besieged by questions of over his taking out of a $1.5 million loan to pay for his campaign in the 1999 Likud primaries.

Despite remaining under investigation, Mr. Sharon maintained his popularity, and in the end inflicted another devastating blow against Labor and its new leader, Amram Mitzna.

Like Mr. Sharon, Labor's Mr. Mitzna had a distinguished military career before becoming Mayor of Haifa.

But Mr. Mitzna's promise to restart peace talks with the Palestinians without preconditions did not have any great appeal for most Israelis, who have faced the danger of constant terror attacks for more than two years.

Mr. Sharon is insistent that no such negotiations begin before there is a cessation of Palestinian violence.

Although he has declared his support for a Palestinian state, the prospects for his next government reaching a peace deal appear remote.

Mr. Sharon says one of his conditions for advancing such a goal is the removal of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But most observers believe that any alternative Palestinian leadership will also reject Mr. Sharon's proposals for a territorial compromise.

Palestinians say Mr. Sharon's vision would result in them being forced to live in disconnected "cantons" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon also insists that any future Palestinian state be demilitarized in order to safeguard the long term future of the Jewish State.

But for me peace means security to the Jewish people, not for short times, nothing to do with elections, in our country or in this country, it should be peace for generations.

Despite the strong public support in Israel for his policies, Mr. Sharon will have little time to savor the taste of victory.

He faces the daunting prospect of forging a new coalition government, without the support of Labor which has pledged not to join forces with the Likud.

Mr. Sharon may have little choice other than to form a new alliance with right wing, religious and ultra-nationalist factions.

It is exactly the scenario Mr. Sharon wants to avoid, acknowledging that such a move could greatly reduce his flexibility in policy making and severely harm Israel's standing in the international community.