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Israel: Barak Win Revives Hopes For Mideast Peace Process

Prague, 18 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Israeli Labor Party's Ehud Barak has emerged as the clear winner from yesterday's prime ministerial election, bringing hope that the Mideast peace process can be revived.

The peace process, both with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors, stalled during the three years of rule by conservative Likud Party Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But in a victory speech to jubilant supporters in Tel Aviv last night, Barak pledged to make the search for peace a top priority. Barak said he would take all his countrymen on a journey towards unity, peace, security and prosperity.

Barak, a highly-decorated soldier, says he will carry on the legacy of the late Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot and killed by an Israeli hard-liner in 1995 in the same Tel Aviv square in which Barak spoke last night.

Can Barak really pick up where Rabin left off? In the prime ministerial poll, Barak himself won a clear victory, defeating Netanyahu by some 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent. But in the parallel parliamentary elections his One Israel alliance, which includes the Labor Party, gained only about 27 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. This could spell problems for the peace process according to a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, Hassan Krayem. He spoke by telephone today with RFE/RL:

"It does not have to be starting from where Rabin ended. That is the slogan of the campaign for Mr. Barak. I think one has to wait and see. It depends on the type of coalition government that Mr. Barak is able to form, and also, the priorities are not yet clear; whether the Palestinian track will be pursued first or the Lebanese or Syrian tracks will be pursued before that." Following the Knesset elections, Likud will be the second biggest bloc behind One Israel. According to provisional figures, it has about 19 seats, followed by the ultra orthodox religious-based Shas, which surprisingly captured some 17 seats. Then comes a host of small parties of various political and religious complexions.

Barak therefore has a number of options. He can seek to form a coalition with small secular parties from the center and left, or seek a broader ideological base, perhaps by including Likud. He may also seek a mix of these plus religious and ultra-orthodox parties.

The choice of partners will have implications for the peace process. And of course peace is not the only consideration. Barak will be seeking to bridge the growing domestic chasm between Israel's secular and religious communities. Krayem said:

"If he moves to have a center-left coalition possibly the peace process would proceed at a faster rate. If the coalition is broader and includes some of the right-wing religious parties, Shas and others, then the possibility of hold-ups is present, and it might be a slow process." Krayem sees progress towards easing strains with Arab states like Lebanon and Syria as comparatively simple. He notes Barak's pre-election promise to withdraw troops from Israel's self-declared security zone in south Lebanon within one year, and he says there should be at least a resumption of talks with Syria, centering on the Golan Heights.

As to the Palestinians, they avoided outright expressions of support for Barak before the elections, so as not to stir a backlash against him among voters. But clearly Palestinian officials prefer him as a negotiating partner to Netanyahu, who they blamed for freezing the peace process. Netanyahu in turn regularly accused the Palestinian Authority of not doing enough to control extremists based in the territory they control.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat gave a restrained reaction when speaking to reporters after the election results were announced. But he was smiling.

"I respect completely the choice of this democratic election and I gave my good wishes to Mr Barak."

The Islamic militants of organizations like Hamas are not so sanguine, however. Hamas have said attacks on Israeli targets will continue regardless of who won the election.

Internationally, Barak's victory has been welcomed. U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a statement saying Washington will work energetically with Barak to achieve a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace. At the same time, Clinton thanked Netanyahu -- with whom he had often strained relations -- for what Clinton called "his dedicated service to Israel."

In Moscow, Foreign Ministry officials said they hoped Russia's already "vital" relations with Israel will develop further.

Certainly, the road towards lasting peace will remain rocky. But Krayem offers a view with which many Israeli voters and commentators seem to agree. He says negotiations "with whatever terms and with whatever obstacles are better than no negotiations."