JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was re-elected to head the Likud party Thursday in a primary overshadowed by a deadly shooting at a polling station in Israel and two attacks on Israeli tourists in Kenya.
Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's only serious challenger, conceded defeat late Thursday and told supporters that he had phoned Sharon to congratulate him on his victory. "Now we must work as a united Likud so that we can work for our principles," he said.
Sharon won 59 percent of the vote among Likud members, compared to 38 percent for Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to early returns from 50 percent of polling stations reported by Israel TV. The station's projections showed Sharon winning, 61 percent to 37 percent. A lesser-known challenger, American-born Moshe Feiglin, got 3 percent.
Sharon told supporters in Tel Aviv his victory was no cause for celebration, and he vowed to seek justice against those who killed Israelis and tried to influence the country's election.
Sharon said the attacks "were part of the campaign of murder and culture of murder of the Arabs against Jews, an attempt by the terrorists to influence the democratic elections and democratic process in Israel."
He added: "Our long arm will get those who carried out the terror attacks. No one will be forgiven."
Sharon will now face the Labor Party's Amram Mitzna, a former general, in Jan. 28 general elections that polls predict Likud will win because of the Israeli public's shift to the right following two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Sharon's primary victory was expected. As the monthlong campaign ended, polls among the 300,000 Likud party members showed Sharon ahead by more than 20 percent over the once-favored Netanyahu, who served as prime minister between 1996-1999.
The vote came on a day of violence for Israelis at home and abroad.
Six Israelis were killed and 45 injured at a Likud office packed with voters and a nearby outdoor bus terminal in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean. In Kenya, at least three Israelis, nine Kenyans and three homicide bombers died in an attack on an Israeli-owned beachside hotel, and two missiles just missed a commercial Israeli airliner after takeoff.
At a news conference, Sharon had urged Likud members to vote despite the Beit Shean attack.
"We cannot allow the murderers to disrupt our lives," he said. "The Palestinian Authority and Arab countries want to intervene in our democratic process."
The day's violence began about 8 a.m. when a four-wheel drive vehicle packed with explosives rammed through the gate of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel near Mombasa, Kenya. A man jumped out and blew himself up inside the hotel, while two others detonated the vehicle out front.
About the same time, two missiles streaked past the Israeli jetliner owned by the Arkia charter company as it left Mombasa's airport. The plane continued on its route to Tel Aviv and no one on board was injured.
Officials in Kenya said they suspect Al Qaeda involvement in the attacks, and Israel said the Mossad intelligence agency would investigate and track down the attackers.
In the polling place and bus station attack, the two gunmen were killed in an ensuing firefight with police and security guards.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the shooting, saying it was a response to the killing of two militants earlier this week in the West Bank town of Jenin.
Later, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement denying any link to the shooting and said such attacks inside Israel "have caused severe and negative damage to our national interests."
A woman who saw the attack from her home near the Likud office described seeing one gunman in a military-style jacket firing on people as they fled.
"I simply saw the terrorist standing, smiling, laughing and shooting in all directions," Galit Cohen told Israel Army Radio. "He simply shot and shot and shot and he didn't stop. People were fleeing and falling."
Despite the shooting, voting continued at Likud branches throughout the country.
Sharon's general election opponent, Mitzna, favors an immediate return to peace talks with the aim of swiftly withdrawing troops and settlers from most of the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.
Sharon says all violence must stop before peace talks resume. He says that he favors creation of a Palestinian state eventually but few believe he would meet Palestinians demands for a state on all the West Bank and Gaza as well as east Jerusalem.
Since coming to power 21 months ago in the early days of the Palestinian uprising, Sharon has overseen an escalation of military efforts to crush radical Palestinian groups that have waged a terror campaign against Israel.
Netanyahu, who opposes Palestinian independence entirely, said Sharon's efforts to crush the uprising hadn't been forceful enough. He calls for expelling Arafat — a move Sharon has refrained from ordering.
Netanyahu's criticisms helped Sharon position himself as a centrist, which could help him against Labor in the general election.
The January vote will be for parliament only. The prime minister will be the party leader able to command a majority among the 120 parliament members.
The two years of violence have moved Israelis to the right, and polls suggest that the Likud leader will have the best chances.
"Sharon drags around a paltry list of achievements, but the failures don't stick to him," political commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv newspaper. "The father of the nation, the ultimate Teflon, is sailing calmly toward a second term. Who would have believed it?"