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Israel elections Friday, 21 May, 1999, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Healing a national wound
Leah Rabin: "Mr Barak is a true follower"
By BBC Middle East Correspondent Paul Adams

In Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, Ehud Barak's convincing victory brought Leah Rabin's three-year nightmare to an end.

"I feel great," Rabin's widow gushed, close to the spot where her husband, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic in November 1995.

"It means the continuation of my husband's way, that was interrupted here. Mr Barak is a true follower," she said.

Huge posters of Prime Minister Rabin adorned the square as 300,000 Israelis celebrated Mr Barak's victory. For many Israelis, and not just the peace camp, Monday night's victory finally healed the national wound inflicted three and a half years ago.

The symbolism is not lost on Israel's new prime minister elect. On Tuesday, Mr Barak, flanked by members of the Rabin family, laid a wreath at the grave of the former prime minister, saying that he was committed to Mr Rabin's legacy.

Mr Barak pays his respects at the grave of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
With his strong military credentials, Mr Barak sees himself as Rabin's natural successor. For the time being at least, Israelis are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Mr Barak's astonishing win, the biggest reversal in Israeli politics for more than 20 years, surprised even the most seasoned observers.

Polls had shown Mr Barak pulling ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu, but few dared to predict such a landslide.

Shocking departure

It was a night of almost unbelievable drama, unfolding with extraordinary speed.

Half an hour after unofficial exit polls first indicated the scale of Mr Barak's victory, before even a single vote had been counted, Mr Netanyahu conceded defeat, adding that he would no longer lead his party, Likud.

Mr Netanyahu bids farewell to the leadership of his country and party
After three controversial years in office, his sudden departure was almost shocking.

"To Bibi or not to Bibi" is how one pollster described Election 99, using Prime Minister Netanyahu's nickname.

By a margin of 56% to 44%, Israelis decided not to Bibi.

Israel's right-wing parties, including Likud, took a hammering, ending decades of left-right stalemate.

Centrist leadership

On Wednesday, Benny Begin, son of another former prime minister, Menachem Begin, announced that he would not be taking up his seat in the Knesset as head of the far right National Union party.

The party received just 3% of the vote, prompting Mr Begin to describe himself as "a public delegate without a public".

The right may have been decimated, but it does not necessarily follow that left-wing ideas will dominate Israel's next Knesset, or that the peace process - held hostage by right-wing hardliners during Mr Netanyahu's tenure - will now forge ahead.

The BBC's Paul Adams: "the results revealed the gulfs that exist between religious and secular Israelis"
Mr Barak will be a centrist leader; his coalition is likely to be a broad one. Even without Likud (a possible partner), it will include centre-right politicians who share Mr Barak's misgivings about the peace process.

Mr Barak has yet to spell out what concessions he is prepared to make to the Palestinians, but he is known to favour retaining most Jewish settlements.

In a 1996 interview, he also said he did not think there was room for a second properly sovereign state west of the Jordan River.

The Palestinians welcomed his victory - glad, like many Israelis, to see the back of Mr Netanyahu. Palestinian officials say they look forward to a dialogue based, once more, on a measure of trust.

But they know future negotiations will be long and difficult, and fear that likely improvements in US-Israeli relations could weaken their own much improved standing in Washington.

Resuming relations

Mr Barak has spoken of his desire to resume negotiations with Syria and withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within a year of taking office.

On election night, katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah guerillas landed across northern Israel.

The timing had less to do with Israel's elections than an earlier Israeli attack which killed two Lebanese civilians, but Mr Barak reminded the Tel Aviv crowd of his commitment.

When he is not dealing with his Arab neighbours, Mr Barak will have to try and heal deep divisions among his own people.

Controversial Shas party leader Arieh Deri is jubilant at his party's success
Election results revealed the gulfs that exist between religious and secular Israelis, and between Jews of different ethnic and social backgrounds.

The new prime minister's choice of coalition partners (including such diametrically opposed groups as Shas - representing religious Sephardi Jews - and the militant secularists of Shinui) will say much about the course he intends to chart.

Mr Barak says he wants to be a prime minister for all Israelis. At a time when the country's Jewish and democratic values sometimes seem at loggerheads with each other, this will be no mean feat.

Links to more Israel elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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