Barak Defeats Netanyahu in Israel
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Ehud Barak, a former general who promised to resume Mideast peace talks, on Monday unseated Benjamin Netanyahu, the tough-talking prime minister who slowed the negotiations and froze Israel’s budding ties with the Arab world.
A tearful Netanyahu, 49, conceded defeat just half an hour after exit polls projected Barak winning by a wide margin, and said he also would step down as leader of the Likud Party.
``I want to congratulate Ehud Barak on his victory in the elections,″ Netanyahu said. ``This is how it has to be in a democracy.″
``We ended the terrorism almost completely, we returned personal security to Israel, we created the principle of reciprocity, we continued the peace process, we reduced unemployment,″ he said.
``The time to calm the winds has come. We need to repair the tears, we need to calm down and unify.″
TV’s Channel One had Barak leading Netanyahu 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent, while Channel Two gave him a lead of 57 percent to 43 percent. The polls included responses from tens of thousands of voters and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
With 1.2 percent of the actual vote counted, Barak led with 69.5 percent to 30.4 percent for Netanyahu.
The election for prime minister and parliament capped an acrimonious five-month campaign fraught with tensions between groups of Jews and recriminations that often overpowered debate on Israel’s ostensibly most pressing issue _ Palestinian statehood.
The growing animosity between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox community was a recurring theme.
Netanyahu claimed Barak was an elitist who hated Israel’s ``outsiders″ _ Russian immigrants and Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern descent who had fueled his 1996 victory.
Barak, 57, Israel’s most decorated soldier, accused Netanyahu of polarizing the nation and managed to turn the prime minister’s widely perceived lack of credibility into a campaign issue.
``The people want to see change, unity and hope, and we are determined to bring it,″ Barak said earlier in the day, thronged by supporters chanting his name at a Jerusalem polling station.
Despite his lack of charisma and a stiff TV persona, Barak was able to inspire enthusiasm in Israel’s peace camp, which had been searching for an electable leader since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a soldier-turned-peacemaker and Barak’s mentor.
Under his ``One Israel″ umbrella group, Barak also was able to unite Sephardic politicians and moderate religious leaders.
In the final days of the campaign, there was a sense that many Israelis who had backed Netanyahu in 1996 in anger over a rash of suicide bombings by Islamic militants were ready to trust Barak with negotiating the terms of Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat _ who had urged Israelis on Monday to ``elect peace″ _ watched the TV broadcasts at his seaside headquarters in Gaza City and met with the U.S. diplomats to discuss the results.
``I respect the choice of this democratic election and I give my best wishes to Mr. Barak,″ a smiling Arafat said.
The Palestinians’ top peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, welcomed Barak’s victory, saying the Israeli people sent a message that ``they want to make peace.″
Barak, unlike Netanyahu, has not ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state and was expected to quickly carry out the West Bank troop withdrawals Netanyahu held up. The former army chief has also pledged to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon within a year.
Labor Party activists broke out in wild cheers when the TV exit polls were broadcast. ``He won, he won, he won,″ Barak supporters chanted as they grabbed each other by the shoulders and danced in circles.
In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where the former prime minister was killed in 1995, thousands of Israelis uncorked champagne and held up huge posters of Rabin, who signed the first peace accords with the Palestinians.
``We cannot bring Rabin back to life, but we can carry on his legacy,″ said Yossi Sarid, leader of the dovish Meretz party.
Some 79 percent of the 4.3 million eligible voters cast their ballots. The paper ballots from more than 7,000 polling stations around the country were to be counted by hand, and unofficial final results were not expected before Tuesday morning.
In all, a record 31 parties competed for the 120-member Knesset, but only about a dozen were expected to pass the threshold of 1.5 percent of the ballots.
Smaller parties were also infected by the harsh rhetoric: special interests mocked other ethnic and religious groups with vulgar jokes and caricatures. Words like ``criminal″ and ``whores″ became ready campaign currency.
Barak has 45 days to form a coalition and submit it to the Knesset. If he is able to form a stable coalition _ something that eluded Netanyahu in his three years of rule _ then he will be able to move more confidently in peace negotiations.
In the campaign, Barak was evasive about Palestinian statehood, saying only he advocated separation between the two peoples and wanted to keep most settlements under Israeli rule.
U.S. officials have said that immediately after the elections, they would press Israel and the Palestinians to begin so-called final status negotiations.