Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a big victory for his Likud party in Tuesday's elections, ensuring his return to power. But since Likud failed to win an outright majority in the 120-member legislature, he must form a coalition government.
Even though the official tally will not be in until next week, the outcome of Tuesday's election is clear. With nearly all the votes counted, the right-of-center Likud won 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset - a major win.
Its arch rival, the left-of-center Labor Party, was trounced, coming in with only 19 seats, barely maintaining its place as the number two party. An upstart secular party, Shinui, rode a wave of voter discontent with the ultra-orthodox religious parties and secured third place with 15 seats.
But now that the election is over, analysts say the really hard political work must begin, namely coalition building. And Mr. Sharon seems aware of that. The Likud leader has gone to his ranch and says he will not begin coalition negotiations until the official vote count is finalized.
In the early morning hours, as Mr. Sharon addressed his jubilant supporters in Tel Aviv, he urged them not to celebrate.
He said it is not a time for celebration, but rather for introspection and for unity to defeat terrorism.
Mr. Sharon appealed for a broad unity government and many Israelis, on the right and the left, would like to see that as well, in the belief such a coalition would bring security and stability. But here too there are differences.
Alex Raznitz, a physicist from Tel Aviv, voted Tuesday for the National Union Party, which is further to the right than Likud. He wants a coalition of the right. He says he agrees with Mr. Sharon's policies of getting tough with the Palestinians, but does not agree at all with the idea of a Palestinian state, which Mr. Sharon says he endorses under certain conditions.
"Well, except for the issue of a Palestinian state. On that I do not agree with him. So, that is why I am voting for the party on the right of Likud," he said.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Yoram Beiran voted for the Labor Party and is upset that Labor leader Amram Mitzna has ruled out joining a Likud coalition.
"It is the most stupid sentence I ever heard in my life, but I believe it will be changed. I do not know if it will be with Mitzna or without Mitzna, this is what most people want," he said.
There are some within Labor who favor joining a unity government with Likud. But in conceding defeat late Tuesday, Mr. Mitzna said his party would stake out an alternative to Likud.
Mr. Mitzna said Labor would remind people there is another way and he said the party would no longer be a "fig leaf" for Likud.
He was referring to the 19 months during which the Labor party was part of the national unity government under Mr. Sharon, during when Labor ministers often had the awkward task of defending positions contrary to those usually backed by Labor. As foreign minister, Labor's Shimon Peres ended up often having to support Mr. Sharon's tough stance on peace with the Palestinians and as defense minister Labor's Benyamin Ben-Eliezer presided over Israel's crackdown against the Palestinian uprising and its reoccupation of the West Bank.
Political commentator Akiva Eldar says joining the coalition with Likud was Labor's big mistake, and it paid for it on Tuesday.
"These elections were lost for two reasons," he noted. "Because people knew too much about the Labor Party and too little about the candidate, about Mitzna. What they knew about the Labor Party is that in the last two years they [Labor] were part of the problem and not part of the solution."
Mr. Eldar, who writes for the Ha'aretz newspaper, says Labor should stay out of any future Likud coalition and work to define a clear policy and regain credibility with the public.
So where does that leave Mr. Sharon? He could form a government with religious and ultra-nationalist parties, but analysts warn that could cause trouble with Israel's main ally, Washington. The Bush administration is hoping to restart the peace process and eventually move to the creation of a Palestinian state, which the ultra-right wing parties vehemently oppose.