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Wednesday February 7, 2001

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Shadowed by violence, Israelis elect a leader and chart a course

By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Tough-talking former general Ariel Sharon looked set to live up to his nickname of "The Bulldozer" and sweep to election victory yesterday over Ehud Barak, the prime minister whose hopes for a comprehensive peace were dashed by the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting in decades.

In voting whose outcome will provide a road map for Mideast peacemaking, Israelis chose between Sharon - a veteran hawk who refuses to cede the Palestinians more territory or a foothold in Jerusalem - and Barak, who offered Palestinians a state encompassing most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, together with a share of the contested city.

"It's a critical time," said Yossi Benheim, a 25-year-old student at a yeshiva, or religious seminary, who voted for Sharon. "Everyone wants peace, but at what price?"

Retired teacher Yehezkel Yardeni voted for Barak, but wondered aloud how many other Israelis would do the same. "I don't know if the general public is ready for peace - mentally they are not ready," he said. "It's a pity we have to live all the time in war."

For many Israelis, neither candidate was a satisfactory choice - and the depth of that frustration was driven home by what was shaping up to be a historically low voter turnout.

By evening, Israeli media and analysts were projecting turnout of less than 70 percent among the 4.5 million eligible voters - compared with a voting average that is traditionally in the neighborhood of 80 percent, among the democratic world's highest.

Israeli Arabs, who account for 12.5 percent of the electorate and were a key source of support for Barak in 1999 elections, were staying home in droves. But turnout was also running relatively low among ultra-religious Jews, whose rabbis had called on them to vote for Sharon.

The 72-year-old Sharon, whose admirers regard him as a war hero and whose detractors fear him as a reckless military adventurist, was overwhelmingly favored in pre-election opinion polls, racking up margins of around 20 percentage points.

At Sharon's campaign headquarters, party workers were putting up posters yesterday evening and getting ready for an expected victory bash.

But the 58-year-old Barak, forced into early elections after 19 turbulent months at the helm of an ever-fraying governing coalition, hoped to the end for a voter turnabout. "I feel great," he told supporters in Tel Aviv as evening fell.

Israel clamped an election-day closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians have been under tight travel restrictions since the start of ferocious clashes that are now in their fifth month.

Palestinians declared a "day of rage" to coincide with the Israeli voting. Dozens of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, Palestinians said.

For many Israelis, the driving force behind the choice was a sense of insecurity spawned by months of fighting. Although the great majority of the nearly 400 people killed have been Palestinians, Israelis have been badly rattled by bombings, drive-by shootings, abductions and ambushes that are seen as making increasing inroads into daily life.

And many Israelis simply could not stomach the fact that the outbreak of violence came on the heels of the most sweeping concessions offered the Palestinians by any Israeli leader: a state in 95 percent of the West Bank and virtually all of Gaza, and control of Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital.

During the brief campaign - begun after Barak resigned eight weeks ago - the prime minister warned again and again that Sharon could plunge Israel into all-out war with the Palestinians, or even ignite a regional conflagration.

Sharon countered by saying that calm must be restored before any meaningful dialogue could occur, and that Barak's proffered concessions on territory and Jerusalem went too far.

"To those who want security for the citizens of Israel - I will bring it," he told supporters yesterday in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona. Supporters, using the diminutive for his name, chanted "Arik, King of Israel!"

For the first time in Israel's history, voters were choosing only a prime minister. No lawmakers' seats were at stake, so yesterday's winner inherits the same sharply divided Knesset, or parliament.

Many analysts predicted it would be just as difficult for Sharon to form a stable government as it has been for Barak - and that his term in office could be even shorter.

Sharon has said - and repeated yesterday - that he wanted a broad-based coalition that could embrace Barak's Labor Party. It was not clear whether such an alliance could be forged, since Barak's and Sharon's positions on peace are so far apart.

Officially, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority says it will work with any Israeli prime minister. But some of his top associates expressed deep misgivings.

"There's a lot of anger and bad memories among our people about Sharon," said Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath. An Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, demonstrators burned pictures of both Israeli candidates, but the harshest words were reserved for Sharon. One of the protesters, a 61-year-old Palestinian woman named Masada Mousa, asked: "Do you think any Palestinian expects the murderer Sharon to achieve peace?"