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Thursday, 27 December, 2001, 11:36 GMT
Hawkish leader for Israel's Labour party
Binyamin Ben Eliezer
Mr Ben Eliezer has been supportive of Ariel Sharon
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer has won the leadership contest for Israel's Labour party.

Officials said Mr Ben Eliezer won 51.2% in the party ballot, while his rival, Parliamentary Speaker Avraham Burg, won 47.3%.

Mr Burg had conceded defeat even before the final results were announced on Thursday.

Yasser Arafat's historical role is over

Binyamin Ben Eliezer
The hawkish defence minister's victory throws a lifeline to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's fractious coalition government.

Mr Burg had wanted his party to withdraw from the government in protest at Mr Sharon's policies towards the Palestinians, while Mr Ben Eliezer has been far more supportive of the prime minister.

The poll on Wednesday was a re-vote after Mr Ben Eliezer demanded an investigation into alleged voting irregularities following Mr Burg's narrow victory in the leadership elections in September.

Mr Burg conceded defeat even before the latest round of voting began, describing the election as "farce".

Mr Ben Eliezer, a gruff, ex-career military officer and former West Bank military governor, now stands a good chance of becoming the Labour party's candidate for elections for prime minister, due to be held in 2003.

Sharon strengthened

With Mr Eliezer leading his coalition partner, Mr Sharon will be able to count on firmer support for his tough line towards the Palestinians, often the source of dispute within his cabinet.

Israeli Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg: Contest was 'a farce'

In contrast to the dovish foreign minister and party colleague Shimon Peres, Mr Eliezer backed the government's decision to ban Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas Eve church services in Bethlehem.

He also supported Mr Sharon's decision earlier this month to cut ties with Mr Arafat.

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Ben Eliezer said "Yasser Arafat's historical role is over," saying the Palestinian leader had "failed to take the strategic decision to stop the violence".

Born in Iraq, 65-year-old Mr Ben Eliezer will be the first Israeli of Middle Eastern origin to lead the Labour party.

The party has previously been led by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who lost elections in February to Mr Sharon, and Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.

The BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem
"Binyamin Ben Eliezer is much more of a hardliner of the Labour Party"
Leading Labour party left winger, Yossi Beilin
"(Ben Eliezer) is a kind of shadow of Sharon and not an alternative to him"
See also:

27 Dec 01 | Middle East
Profile: Israel's new Labour leader
05 Sep 01 | Middle East
Row delays Israel Labour Party result
02 Mar 01 | Middle East
Israel gets new defence chief
12 Oct 00 | Media reports
Israeli deputy premier: 'It's war'
10 Aug 01 | Middle East
Q&A: Cycle of violence
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