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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 20:12 GMT 21:12 UK
Row delays Israel Labour Party result
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer voting
Mr Ben-Eliezer took an early lead but later cried foul
Israel's Labour Party is heading for a protracted legal battle over the election of a new leader amid charges of vote-rigging.

With almost all the votes counted, Knesset speaker Avraham Burg holds a narrow lead, but acrimony over the result brought the counting to a halt on Wednesday.

Mr Burg's rival - current Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - dismissed the result as a "major political scandal".

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg is younger and more doveish than Mr Ben-Eliezer

Official results have now been delayed and party election officials are expected to spend several days examining the ballot.

The lawyers are now at the ready and the party has been split in two. One Israeli commentator compared the election to the hotly contested Florida vote which decided the US presidential election.

Mr Ben-Eliezer - seen as a hardliner and supporter of military measures against the Palestinians - has vowed to fight the election battle to the bitter end.

Mr Burg, who favours a resumption of peace talks, will have to wait and see if his victory is confirmed.

The party's electoral committee has to decide whether to declare a winner, have a recount or conduct the whole poll again.

Missile strike

Violence continued unabated on Wednesday. Israeli forces demolished a security post at Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip, wounding at least one person, Palestinian sources said.

The Israelis reportedly fired two surface-to-surface missiles at the building, which belonged to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Force 17 security unit.

Debris of security post at Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip
Israeli missiles hit a Palestinian security post

Efforts are still under way to arrange talks between Mr Arafat and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres.

Over the past 11 months of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, opinion in Israel has veered sharply to the right.

The BBC's Orla Guerin in Jerusalem says that whoever is crowned king in the election, the Labour Party will have nothing to celebrate, as the peace camp has all but withered away.

More than 100,000 party members were eligible to vote.

With a few hundred ballot papers still to be counted, Mr Burg led by just over 1,000 votes.

Charges of vote-rigging centred on areas populated by Israeli Arabs, in particular the Druze community.

Initial results suggested that Druze voters overwhelmingly backed Mr Burg, but in the past Mr Ben-Eliezer has enjoyed strong support from this community, so he suspects foul play.

Labour's woes

"The Labour Party cannot give birth to a leader in sin," Mr Ben-Eliezer said.

"If a party leader is elected on the basis of fraud... it will be regretted for generations in the Labour Party."

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak was swept away in February's elections
While Mr Burg has cultivated an articulate telegenic persona, Mr Ben-Eliezer prides himself on a blunt, straightforward approach.

Labour suffered a crushing defeat in February's general election under Ehud Barak.

The party that ruled Israel for most of its early history has been left demoralised and without direction.

Foreign Minister Peres has been acting as caretaker leader since that defeat, but is not standing for the job.

Labour is seen as the party that tried and failed to make peace with the Palestinians.

The fact that it has now joined a national unity government with Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud party also makes it difficult for it to present itself as a real alternative.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem
"There are now serious allegations of fraud"
The BBC's James Reynolds
"This was mean't to be a re-birth for the Labour Party"
Daily Telegraph Diplomatic Editor, Anton La Guardia
"I think the country has become polarised by the conflict"
See also:

03 Sep 01 | Middle East
Two die in Hebron clashes
21 Feb 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Israel's political turmoil
10 Aug 01 | Middle East
Q&A: Cycle of violence
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