Barak celebrates landslide victory over Netanyahu
May 18, 1999
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Before a crowd of jubilant supporters, Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, celebrated a landslide victory over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and pledged to unite a divided nation.
"It is my intention to be everyone's prime minister. Whatever the differences of opinion between us, we are brothers," Barak declared early Tuesday in a Tel Aviv hotel, his comments frequently interrupted by singing and applause from Labor Party supporters.
Barak then headed to Rabin Square, the site where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also of the Labor Party, was assassinated in November 1995, to address thousands of Israelis who reveled in Barak's overwhelming success.
With 100 percent of the civilian vote counted for prime minister, Barak garnered 56 percent of the vote to 44 for Netanyahu. There were 160,000 votes of soldiers, diplomats and prisoners yet to be counted, but those returns will not change the overall outcome of the prime minister's race. Exit polls had projected a landslide win for Barak.
A half-hour after polling stations closed, a tearful Netanyahu conceded defeat before stunned followers and said he was stepping down as the Likud Party leader.
"I want to congratulate Ehud Barak for winning the election," Netanyahu said. He then announced he was taking a recess from politics.
"I think the time has come to take a break to be with my family, with my wife and children and decide on my future," he said.
But he hinted any absence from Israel's political scene would be brief. "I still have a lot to give to this country," he added.
Palestinian leaders welcomed Barak's victory, expressing hope that Barak would revive the Middle East peace process that has stalled under Netanyahu.
"I respect the outcome of the Israeli elections, and I congratulate Mr. Barak," a smiling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat told reporters. Asked if he believed peace talks would now move forward, Arafat replied: "We hope so."
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Monday's vote signaled that the Israeli people "want to make peace."
While Netanyahu froze peace talks with the Palestinians in December and has imposed a long list of conditions on resuming them, Barak has staked out a position as a moderate who wants to move the process along.
His campaign for prime minister also focused on Netanyahu's weak points -- social and economic issues.
However, voters told pollsters throughout the campaign they didn't see much difference on the issues between Netanyahu and Barak. The key has been Netanyahu's personality and whether he can be trusted, analysts said.
"Israeli voters have to decide if Netanyahu is a liar, and if he is a liar, is he a big liar, and if so, is that good for Israel," said Dan Margalit, a writer for the Ha'aretz newspaper.
Knesset expected to be fragmented
Voters on Monday also elected members of the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, from among 31 contending parties.
The Knesset voted in December to hold early elections after it became clear that Netanyahu lacked parliamentary support for his handling of the peace process with the Palestinians.
An exit poll by Israel's Channel One projected that parties aligned with Barak would have 56 seats in the 120-member parliament, just short of a majority, while Netanyahu's allies would total 42. The remaining seats will go to centrist parties.
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.
Police said they had detained 25 people in 180 election-related incidents, including suspected ballot fraud and fistfights.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who uniformly back Netanyahu, clashed Monday with secular activists who were stationed in their neighborhoods to monitor voting. In previous elections, some ultra-Orthodox Jews had been caught using dead people's identity cards to vote more than once.
Security forces also sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, barring entry to Palestinians, for polling day.
Their withdrawal dashed Netanyahu's hopes that no candidate would win the required outright majority, giving him a new head of steam for a second-round runoff against Barak on June 1.
Analysts said Netanyahu's chances lay in a heavy turnout among his core ultra-Orthodox Jewish supporters and hopes that ex-Likud supporters who had backed Mordechai would through their support behind him.
He also is hoping to disprove reports that voters among the 700,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- a key element of his 1996 victory -- have deserted him in droves.
Throughout the personality-driven campaign, Israeli voters told pollsters they didn't see much difference on the issues between Netanyahu and Barak. The one issue that substantially divides the two -- how to revive the peace process -- barely rippled throughout the sometimes vicious campaign.
Netanyahu, who froze peace talks with the Palestinians in December, has said they must fulfill a long list of demands before he brings Israel back to the table.
He also backs a crisscross pattern of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that would make Palestinian statehood, something he opposes, virtually impossible.
Barak wants Israel to return to its commitments under the Wye River peace agreement brokered by President Clinton last October.
The deal calls on Israel to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for security measures. Barak also wants to contain Jewish settlements and advocates a separation from the Palestinians.
CNN's Randy Harber contributed to this report.
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