Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's conservative Likud Party easily won parliamentary elections Tuesday, handing the Israeli leader a mandate on his hard-line approach toward the Palestinians but leaving him with the formidable task of forming a stable government as the intifada grinds on and a possible war with Iraq looms.
Reflecting a pervasive sense of sadness and cynicism among the Israeli electorate, the turnout was the country's lowest ever in a general election.
The somber national mood, together with worries about what kind of coalition Sharon will be able to cobble together to achieve the necessary parliamentary majority, took some of the celebratory edge off the prime minister's late-night victory speech.
"We have a historic triumph ... but this is not a time for celebrations," a weary-looking Sharon told flag-waving supporters who packed a cavernous exhibition hall in Tel Aviv. Using his nickname, they chanted, "Arik, king of Israel!"
Sharon appealed to the left-leaning Labor Party to enter into a governing coalition with him, as it did after his election nearly two years ago.
"Israel needs unity; Israel needs stability," he said.
With 99% of the vote counted, Likud had 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, up significantly from its current 19. Labor trailed far behind with 19 spots, compared with 26 in the current Knesset, and the secular-rights party Shinui took 15 places, more than doubling its parliamentary representation. Shas, the largest of the religious parties, won 11 seats, down from its current 17.
Labor, the standard-bearer for Israel's peace movement, posted its worst-ever showing, dropping below 20 seats for the first time in its history.
At party headquarters in Tel Aviv, the mood was despondent, with supporters staging a forlorn sing-along of old Israeli folk songs as the results began coming in.
In a concession speech delivered soon after exit polls sketched the dimensions of Labor's defeat, Amram Mitzna, the gray-haired, bearded party leader, rebuffed Sharon's plea to form a "national unity" government -- a broad-based coalition of the kind favored by many Israelis in times of crisis.
"I have no intention of abandoning our mission in return for ministerial chairs," Mitzna said. "Our path is the right one."
But he may not be able to keep that pledge. Labor was plagued by intense infighting during the election contest, and some party officials want to join Sharon rather than taking up the role of the political opposition.
Other Laborites believe, however, that their recent, 20-month partnership with Likud not only cost the party votes but ate away at its sense of identity. Labor pulled out of the coalition in late October, precipitating the early election.
The 57-year-old Mitzna, a newcomer to the national political scene, campaigned on a dovish platform, urging the resumption of peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the relinquishing of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank.
Sharon, by contrast, refuses to deal with Arafat and wants to hold talks with the Palestinians only after a sweeping political reform of the Palestinian Authority and a halt to terror attacks.
Shinui expressed willingness to join Sharon's coalition -- but only if the alliance does not include religious parties, which traditionally have been key Likud allies. The prime minister was also expected to keep up pressure on Labor to relent and join forces with him.
Without Shinui and Labor, Sharon would be forced to form a narrow government with small right-wing parties adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Under such a scenario, the prime minister might find himself his coalition's unlikely liberal champion.
"At the moment, there are so many unknowns -- depending on the configuration, the government could move in very, very different directions in its dealings with the Palestinians," said Tamar Hermann, an analyst at Tel Aviv University.
The elections offered no respite in Israel's 29-month-old conflict with the Palestinians. Four Palestinians were killed in fighting in the West Bank, another was shot dead in the Gaza Strip, and Israeli helicopters hit targets in Gaza as the vote was going on.
The voter turnout of 68% was high by the standards of the industrialized world but amounted to a poor showing in Israel, where raucous debate and enthusiastic participation in the political process traditionally are something of a national sport. Turnouts of 80% are not unusual here.
Despite the fact that so many people opted not to vote, scenes at the country's polling places showcased a small state's dizzying diversity.
Arriving at schools and community centers to cast their votes were black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jews, young soldiers in uniform, nose-ringed Tel Aviv hipsters, Ethiopian immigrants in traditional dress and animated women conversing in Russian.
"I've been a Likudnik for 50 years -- don't expect me to change now!" said 64-year-old Suzanne Shmuel, emerging from a polling station in a rundown Jerusalem neighborhood. "Sharon is doing what he can -- no one else could do any better."
Rachel Bitton, 30, said that a lost identity card prevented her from voting but that she didn't really mind. Like many young Israelis, she believed that none of the candidates had much to offer, and she felt that the faltering economy had left her stuck in a dead-end job.
"Life is harder now. People are fighting for every shekel," said Bitton, who dropped out of college because she couldn't afford the tuition and now sells magazines at a Tel Aviv newsstand. "It's not so easy as it used to be -- it doesn't matter how many degrees you have.... The situation in this country should change."
Yonah and Edith Shirar, both in their 70s, cast their votes for Labor. They knew the party would fare badly, but "one must follow one's principles," said Yonah Shirar, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe.
Israeli Arabs, pained by the plight of their Palestinian brethren and feeling alienated from the Israeli political process, voted in small numbers. In the heavily Arab coastal city of Jaffa, fewer than one-quarter of eligible voters had turned up by evening at one polling place. Appeals to vote sounded at nightfall from mosques in the Israeli Arab town of Umm al Fahm.
Palestinians, most of whom had harbored hopes that Mitzna would prevail over Sharon, were confined to their cities and towns on election day, with a strict military closure of the West Bank and Gaza in effect.
Suad Mahmoud, a young Palestinian homemaker with her 4-month-old in her arms, spent part of the cold winter afternoon trying unsuccessfully to talk her way through an Israeli army checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Ramallah so that she could visit family on the other side.
"Sharon has done many bad things against the Palestinians, and yet he is the leader of his country again," she said, shaking a head covered by a tight-fitting black scarf.
A senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, called the election outcome "the Israelis' business," but he added: "I think we've hit a status quo in terms of the frozen peace process, and the Palestinians and the Israelis are heading toward more escalation and violence on the ground."
The militant Islamic group Hamas, which has carried out scores of suicide attacks against Israelis and does not recognize the existence of the Jewish state, professed disdain for the vote.
"We don't care," said Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas political leader in Gaza. "It doesn't matter who won. We will get rid of all the Zionist occupiers."
Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001 under a now-abandoned system of direct elections for prime minister. Now, embarking on another term, he is confronted with the complex task of sorting through the assets and liabilities of potential parliamentary allies.
After final results are announced in about a week, Israel's president has a week to consult with the parties. Then the head of the party that won the most Knesset seats -- Sharon -- has 28 days to form a government. That deadline, however, can be extended for up to 14 days.
Commentators pointed out that the timetable for forming a government could well coincide with the countdown to a U.S.-led war with Iraq. Once Israel was on a war footing, it would be difficult for Labor to resist Sharon's proffered hand without being accused of failing to show unity at a critical juncture.
Many Israelis believe that this vote could usher in a prolonged period of political instability. A survey last week by the Dahaf polling institute suggested that about 30% of the public believed that the new government would be in power for a year or less. Fewer than one in five believed it would last for its full four-year term.
In recent years, one Israeli prime minister after another has found it impossible to hold his fractious ruling coalition together. This is Israel's fourth national vote since 1996.
"Elections have become such a frequent event in Israel that we should consider turning them into an annual sports event," Sever Plotzker wrote in a sardonic commentary last week in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "The parties, like the soccer league, should crown a new winner every year."