Supporters of the Likud party celebrate in Tel Aviv late Tuesday night following the publication of the election results. (Photo: AP)Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called for a national unity government following his Likud party’s landslide victory in Tuesday’s elections for the 16th Knesset.

“The differences between us are dwarfed by the murderous hatred of the terror organizations,” he said during his victory speech early Wednesday morning, calling on all Zionist parties to join his coalition.

“I state here that after the president places the task of assembling the new government in my hands, I will appeal to all of the Zionist parties to join the widest possible national-unity government,” Sharon told supporters at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.

“This is the will of the people. The basis for forming the new unity government will be the basic principles of the outgoing unity government that the majority of the parties represented in the new Knesset previously agreed to, and the diplomatic plan I presented a plan which can bring Israel victory over terror and open a door to real peace.”

With almost 100% of the vote counted, Sharon’s Likud doubled its strength, from 19 to 37 seats in the 120-member parliament. Likud’s political rival, the Labor party, posted its worst-ever showing, dropping from 26 to 19 seats.

In his concession speech, Labor leader Amram Mitzna said he would lead a spirited opposition and prepare Labor for the next election. He called Sharon and congratulated him on the Likud’s victory. Sharon thanked him and the two decided to meet in the near future. Former Labor chairman Shimon Peres said Labor cannot rule out joining a national-unity government, but Mitzna spoke unequivocally against it in his concession speech.

“Labor will tell Sharon that there is an alternative and a different path,” Mitzna told supporters at party headquarters, over chants of “Anything but the Likud.”

“I don’t intend to concede our path for seats in the government. We are not embarrassed to sit in the opposition and I guarantee our stay there will be short. We won’t stop fighting until the public gives us its trust and I guarantee it will be soon. Politics is a marathon and we are still in the first kilometers.”

The election was marked by the lowest turnout in Israeli history for a Knesset election. Only 68.5 percent of the electorate voted for the 16th Knesset, 10% lower than in 1999.

Some 27,000 policemen, border policemen, soldiers, and private guards were on duty to protect the 7,736 polling stations scattered throughout the country. Police received dozens of warnings of possible terrorist attacks, but the voting process went smoothly throughout the day

Besides the Likud, another big winner of the election was Shinui, which more than doubled its strength to 15 seats, becoming the third-largest faction. The party and its leader Tommy Lapid successfully appealed to disaffected middle-class voters rebelling against what they perceive as religious coercion by ultra-Orthodox Jewish political parties and an unfair tax burden.

Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, whose party dropped from 10 to 6 mandates, announced that he intends to quit and “take a time-out from politics” if the results prove to be correct. New Meretz member Yossi Beilin, who did not win a seat in the Knesset, said he would not challenge Sarid.
Shas also fell dramatically from 17 seats to 11. Supporters of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri called upon Shas chairman Eli Yishai to follow Sarid’s lead and quit.

Among the other results, the right-wing National Union ended up with 7, the National Religious Party with 5, United Torah Judaism with 5,

The Arab parties received 9 mandates: (Hadash/Ta’al – 4, National Democratic Assembly (Balad) – 3, and United Arab List – 2.)

The labor union party One Nation received 4 and the immigrant party Yisrael B’Aliya ended up with 2.

By law, results will become official on February 5, eight days after the vote, after soldiers’ and Foreign Service votes are counted. The results of the election could change marginally with a party gaining or losing a mandate following the tally.

Following the declaration of the final results, the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, who holds a mainly ceremonial position and is appointed by the Knesset, will nominate the leader of the largest faction to form a coalition government numbering at least 61 seats: a majority of the Knesset.

The party leader, in this case Sharon, who is considered the prime minister elect despite not having been voted for directly, will have 28 days to form the government. The President may extend the term by an additional period of time, not exceeding 14 days.

Once the government is approved, the Knesset will officially confirm the party leader as prime minister by the Knesset.