May 31, 1996
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT)
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israelis elected right-wing candidate Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister by a razor-thin margin over incumbent Shimon Peres, an architect of peace agreements with the Palestinians. The unofficial final vote gave Netanyahu 50.49 percent to Peres' 49.51 percent. Before Netanyahu officially becomes prime minister he must get Knesset approval.
Israel's prime minister was directly elected this year for the first time in a cliffhanger race that revealed deep public division on the issue of national security. Most of the 3.9 million eligible voters also cast ballots for parties in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament.
After preliminary results showed the Likud party's Netanyahu just ahead of Peres, Netanyahu's aides issued a statement Thursday aimed at calming fears that the peace process was in jeopardy.
"Netanyahu is committed to the achievement of peace with security between Israel and its neighbors, including the Palestinians," adviser Dore Gold read from the statement.
Following the announcement of his loss, Peres said he would work for peace whereever he may be. (127K AIFF or WAV sound)
Likud, Labor suffer losses in Knesset
Both Peres' Labor Party and his Likud rival Netanyahu suffered significant setbacks in separate voting for the Knesset as religious parties and other smaller groups gained seats that will give them leverage in coalition-building efforts.
The whole campaign focused on a single issue: security. Peres promised to bring security by forging peace agreements with Arab neighbors, while Netanyahu played on Israelis' security fears, saying only a strong Israel that did not hand back captured land to Arabs could build peace.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu, 46, insisted that Peres' peace plans compromise Israel's security.
Netanyahu -- who will be the country's youngest prime minister once sworn in -- has promised to slow the peace process, build new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, block creation of a Palestinian state, and hold on to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.
Rejoicing in West Bank
There was rejoicing among religious Jews and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, who overwhelmingly voted for Netanyahu.
But the mood was somber among supporters of the peace process. In heavily secular Tel Aviv, Peres supporters gathered at the site of Yitzhak Rabin's slaying, laying red and white wreaths at the foot of the stairs where he was shot seven months ago. "Rabin was killed on November 4 -- Peres was killed on May 29," read one sign.
Peres was initially buoyed by sympathy for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in November by a right-wing Jew opposed to peace with Palestinians.
But that advantage was all but wiped out by a deadly spate of Islamic suicide bombings in Israel that caused many Israelis to re-evaluate the peace process.
Netanyahu makes some concessions to peace
Netanyahu had led the Israeli opposition to Israel's 1993 peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in an effort to woo moderate swing voters, he recently said he accepts limited PLO rule in Gaza and the West Bank, and would negotiate further with Arafat.
Netanyahu, however, vowed never to agree to the PLO's key demand -- a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Some 79 percent of the country's 3.9 million electorate voted, the Central Elections Committee said, slightly higher than the last election in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin led Labor to power.
The campaign and election day were overshadowed by fears of violence. Troop reinforcements were sent to enforce a blockade of the West Bank and Gaza, and 26,000 police and soldiers -- triple the number normally on patrol -- were deployed throughout the country.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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