Barak trounces Netanyahu

Israeli voters' choice for prime minister is setback for hard-liners 'Dawn of a new day' Decisive winner vows to resume peace talks with the Palestinians


JERUSALEM -- In a stunning defeat for the country's hard-liners, Israelis overwhelmingly elected Ehud Barak, retired army chief of staff, as prime minister yesterday, sweeping from office Benjamin Netanyahu and eroding his Likud coalition's representation in Israel's parliament.

Netanyahu conceded defeat within a half-hour of the closing of the polls, even though it was only television exit polls that declared Barak the winner.

Those polls gave Barak, a political moderate and leader of the opposition Labor Party, at least 57 percent of the votes, compared with 43 percent for Netanyahu, a tally that seemed to reflect the actual vote as unofficial figures were released.

"I want to congratulate Ehud Barak on his victory in the elections," said Netanyahu, who announced his decision to step down as Likud leader.

"The nation decided, and we respect that decision; that is the way it is in a democracy."

Tens of thousands of Israelis jammed the Tel Aviv square named for Barak's mentor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a religious Jew for implementing the Oslo peace accords.

Barak, the soldier-turned-politician, arrived there at 3:30 in the morning to thank his supporters.

"This place is the dawn of a new day," he told the cheering crowds. "You didn't give up for one moment.

"I will be proud to be your prime minister and the prime minister of everybody. ... This victory belongs to the entire people of Israel."

But within hours of his win, Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel from Lebanon. Barak reiterated his pledge to extricate Israel from its security zone in southern Lebanon.

The latest border incident seemed a clear message from Hezbollah guerrillas that the problem was unresolved.

The 57-year-old Barak, Israel's most decorated war veteran, campaigned on a message of hope and change for an Israel divided over the stalled peace process, the growing rift between religious and secular Jews, and a depressed economy.

He pledged to resume the peace process with the Palestinians and to reverse the intransigence that characterized Netanyahu's stall of the 1994 Oslo accords.

But he is an ardent hawk on the toughest issues that remain to be decided in the peace process: the nature of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Clinton administration, long frustrated by Netayahu's tactics of delay in the peace process, invited Barak to the White House as soon as he could come.

Palestinians applaud

Palestinian leaders welcomed Netanyahu's defeat as a sign of Israelis' desire for peace.

"We hope that the dry three years under Netanyahu would be forgotten and hope would return by pursuing peace," said Ahmed Qurei, the president of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a chief negotiator in the original 1993 Oslo talks.

Uri Dromi, a former government spokesman in the Labor-led government of Shimon Peres and Rabin, characterized yesterday's vote as a backlash against Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc in his government.

"You can't stay prime minister for long if you rely on extremists," said Dromi.

Before he can restart the peace process and mend the cultural and ethnic rifts in Israeli society, Barak has 45 days to form a new government.

In electing a new parliament yesterday, Israel's 4.2 million voters increased the representation of the moderate, centrist parties that advocate a decrease in the influence of ultra-religious Jews on Israelis' daily lives.

Changes in legislature

But they further split Israel's already fractured legislature: 17 parties will be represented in the 120-member parliament, compared with 11 now represented.

Netanyahu's Likud party took one of the biggest hits, losing possibly 14 of its 32 seats.

Shas, the powerful party of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Arab countries, scored the biggest victory, increasing its likely membership from 10 to 17. Shas would be the third-largest party in the 120-member Knesset.

Israel B'Aliya, the Russian immigrant party of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, looked likely to lose two of its seven Knesset seats. A new Russian party, led by a Netanyahu ally, won two seats, according to the early forecasts.

Dromi, an analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute, characterized Barak as a "cautious" and "cool-headed" thinker who "can make the right decisions." But he will have to "learn to work with people whose political opinions differ from his," Dromi said.

"Rabin tried to push through a peace agreement with a small minority," added Emmanuel Gutman, an expert on the Israel government at Hebrew University.

"If Barak wants to make a peace agreement with the Palestinians work, he will have to widen his government. I think this is very possible on the basis of these results."

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