JERUSALEM (AP) Tough-talking former general Ariel Sharon was projected by exit polls as the victor yesterday in the election for Israeli prime minister in the election for Israeli prime minister, and incumbent Ehud Barak conceded defeat.

Paul Wong
Likud Party supporters celebrate Ariel Sharon”s victory over Prime Minister Ehud Barak yesterday at a convention center in Tel Aviv, Israel.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Speaking to supporters in a choked voice, Barak said he called Sharon and congratulated him. “The voters have spoken, and I respect their democratic decision.” Barak told a crowd of several hundred supporters, who shouted “Thank you, Ehud!”

“Friends, we have lost a battle, but we will win the war,” the former general said. “Our path is the one and only path, the path that will lead Israel to peace and security.”

Barak also said he would step down as Labor Party leader and give up his seat in parliament.

TV exit polls predicted Sharon won 59.5 percent of the vote to Barak”s 40.5 percent. The surveys give pollsters a large sample 50,000 out of an electorate of 4.5 million.

The first official returns about 4 percent of the vote, drawn from areas where Barak is strong showed Sharon leading by a smaller margin: 52.2 percent to Barak”s 47.7 percent, election officials said.

Jubilation had broken out at Sharon”s headquarters when the exit polls were announced, with supporters whistling, clapping and blowing horns, waving blue-and-white banners as they awaited his arrival. “The end of Oslo!” some shouted, referring to the interim peace accord that Sharon had always opposed.

Barak supporters were plunged into gloom. “It”s a disaster for Israeli democracy and the Israeli people, because they totally want something Sharon is unable to deliver,” said parliament member Yael Dayan.

At Barak headquarters, a few downcast young campaigners softly sang a line from the national anthem: “We have not yet given up hope.”

In his speech to supporters, Barak himself sounded strong and upbeat even as he conceded defeat.

“The road we chose is the one and only true path,” he said as backers, some teary-eyed, slowly waved blue-and-white Israeli flags. “The true path requires courage and it is possible that the public is not fully ready for the painful truth. The truth will prevail.”

Barak said Sharon had proposed a government that would include Barak”s Labor Party.

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