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Olmert steps out of Sharon's shadow to victory

Written by: Staff
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NEVE ILAN, Israel, Mar 29 (Reuters) With giant pictures of Ariel Sharon as a backdrop, Ehud Olmert finally drew the spotlight as the interim prime minister celebrated victory in Israel's general election.

''Ehud, King of Israel!'' activists chanted at his Kadima party's election headquarters today, echoing a popular chant that had greeted Sharon at the high points of a decades-long political career.

Sharon, Israel's prime minister since 2001, suffered a stroke in January and has been in a coma since.

He founded Kadima in November after bolting the right-wing Likud party in the face of an internal revolt over a Gaza pullout last year that he championed in a sharp reversal of policy.

Olmert, a veteran politician who served in Sharon's shadow as his deputy, followed him to Kadima and took over as the country's interim leader after he fell ill.

Beaming at a sea of supporters, some flying party flags and tossing white balloons, Olmert, 60, thanked his hospitalised mentor.

''At this time I lift up my eyes and heart to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, to the man who started it all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,'' he said to cheers.

Israeli television stations cut away abruptly from live coverage of Labour Party chief Amir Peretz speaking at his group's headquarters to broadcast Olmert's speech from Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem.

''Just before he should have seen his vision come true, his body failed him,'' Olmert said about Sharon and his plan to ''disengage'' from conflict with the Palestinians through what the former general had described as ''painful concessions.'' Olmert pledged in his speech to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, uprooting some settlements while strengthening others, and set a border unilaterally if peacemaking with the Palestinians remains frozen.

Palestinians say such moves would deny them a viable state on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Olmert arrived at the victory celebration after visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, where he placed a note of prayer in the cracks of its ancient walls.

Sharon and winners of previous Israeli elections had made the same pilgrimage.

Nearly complete official results showed Kadima with about 29 seats in the 120-member parliament, putting it in position to form a governing coalition with other parties. Pre-election opinion polls had once predicted Kadima would take 44 seats.

''(Sharon) probably would have said, 'We could have done better, but let's get to work,''' said Raanan Gissin, an Olmert aide who served as an adviser to Sharon.

REUTERS SB KP0927

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