Barak stresses unity, faces reality
Amid coalition efforts, Palestinians demand quick action
May 18, 1999
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- With his landslide victory just hours behind him, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak faced immediate pressure Tuesday to begin fulfilling two key promises: to build a broad governing coalition and to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.
Barak set the tone for his new administration -- an emphasis on unity -- by paying tribute to Jewish tradition and praying at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
He sang with a rabbi intoning Psalm 122, and slipped a note with a prayer into one of the cracks.
"At this place, Jews have prayed throughout the generations, and it is fitting that the message of brotherhood should go out from here," said the secular Barak, whose grandfather was a rabbi in Lithuania.
Later, he visited the grave of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the soldier-turned-peacemaker who signed historic peace accords with Jordan and the Palestinians.
Barak also received a phone call from Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, who congratulated the new Israeli leader and urged a renewal of peace talks.
Arafat's aides said Barak read a lengthy statement to Arafat in which he said he remained committed to the peace process begun by Rabin.
With ballots counted at nearly 99 percent of more than 7,000 polling stations, Barak had 55.9 percent of the votes to 43.9 percent for right-wing incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, a landslide triumph by Israeli standards and one that exceeded almost all pre-election forecasts.
Some constituencies remained unchanged since 1996 -- ultra-Orthodox Jews and settlers backed Netanyahu by the same overwhelming numbers, and Arabs did the same for Barak.
But other results were telling. In Beersheba, heavily populated with the Middle Eastern Jews who once were the backbone of the Likud, Netanyahu dipped from 62 percent of the vote in 1996 to 55 percent.
While Barak paid homage at the Western Wall and Rabin's grave, he faced the realities of preparing to govern.
"We want to form the widest government possible," said Yossi Beilin, a top official in Barak's Labor Party and an architect of interim peace deals with the Palestinians that Monday's election winner has pledged to revive.
Beilin said Netanyahu's post-election announcement that he would step down as leader of the Likud party could pave the way for Likud to become Labor's biggest partner in a coalition. Under Netanyahu, back-room coalition contacts between the two parties failed to forge an alliance.
"I would not rule out Likud joining this kind of (coalition) government," Beilin told Army Radio.
According to preliminary results, parties aligned with Barak would have 51 seats in the 120-member parliament, while Likud and its allies would have 53, with the remaining seats belonging to centrist parties that could go either way.
Barak's Labor-led One Israel bloc took 27 seats in the election, while Likud won 19, down from the 32 it had in the outgoing Knesset. Finishing third was the ultra- Orthodox Shas movement, which won 17 seats, up from 10.
Barak had said prior to the election that he would not conduct coalition negotiations with Shas leader Arieh Deri, who just before the voting was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four years in jail.
However, that stumbling block was removed Tuesday, when Deri announced he would resign from the Knesset.
"I won't serve in the Knesset. I will submit a letter as required by law," Deri told a news conference.
Beilin told Israel's Channel One that in his view Deri's announcement had cleared the way for Shas to join negotiations to form a government.
Barak has 45 days to form a coalition and submit it to the Knesset. Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister until then.
Whatever the new government's composition, it will have to reach across the political spectrum, said legislator Haim Ramon of Barak's Labor Party.
"He has to form a wide coalition because he has very tough decisions ahead of him on all subjects," Ramon said.
The five-month campaign highlighted the country's bitter internal divisions, such as growing animosity between the secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, immigrants and veterans and Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.
Barak also is facing an imposing agenda that includes the question of Palestinian independence, peace with Syria and pulling soldiers out of Lebanon.
As Barak began the process of putting together a government, he faced pressure to act quickly on that agenda: A senior Palestinian official served notice Tuesday that Palestinians expect Barak to start delivering on peace agreements within two weeks after he forms his government.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinians anticipated the United States would resume intensive efforts to get the U.S.-brokered Wye River agreement implemented.
The Palestinians expect a trip to the region by U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross soon after Barak takes over, the official said.
Palestinians welcomed Barak's win over Netanyahu, who froze the Wye accord last year. But they were careful about expressing too much optimism.
"The essential element here is not to waste time," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "It is also important to revive, in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis, hope in peace."
U.S. President Bill Clinton said Tuesday the United States is eager to help Israel's newly elected prime minister pursue accords with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
"I think the road map is out there," Clinton said, referring to the Wye River.
"And we'll do what we've always done. And I've been working at this for six years, and I'm looking forward to continuing," Clinton said during a White House picture-taking session with Jordan's King Abdullah.
Erekat said the Palestinians expected full and immediate implementation of the Wye accord, which calls for an Israeli pullback from 13.1 percent of the West Bank in exchange for security guarantees.
The Palestinians said they also expect the Labor-led government to halt expansion of Jewish settlements and cancel contracts for new ones.
Underscoring the difficulty Barak faces, bulldozers Tuesday worked to clear land for construction of two Jewish neighborhoods in areas of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians for a future capital.
Building plans in the Ras al-Amud and Har Homa neighborhoods have triggered Palestinian protests in the past and will pose a difficult test for Barak.
While Barak has said he will keep Jerusalem united under Israeli control, Palestinians said it could cast a pall over his peace efforts if he lets the construction in Ras al-Amud and Har Homa proceed.
"This is a terrorist act," Palestinian legislator Ziyad Abu Ziyah said. He said Israel's hard-liners were trying to "sabotage Barak's policy of resuming the peace talks before they even started," and demanded that Barak halt the construction.
Cries for unity ran through Barak's campaign, and he said he hoped to enlist enough political allies to reach a national consensus that would enable him to negotiate permanent peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syria.
He has also pledged to pull Israeli troops out of a south Lebanon occupation zone within a year.
Barak has mapped out a tough stance for negotiations on a final peace deal with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
He said again on Tuesday that he would retain Israeli control over all of Jerusalem, keep large blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and ensure that a Palestinian entity would be demilitarized.
Another reminder of issues Barak will face came as Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon fired Katyusha rockets on northern Israel before dawn Tuesday, apparently in retaliation for the deaths of two Lebanese civilians from Israeli rocket fire.
Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the unspecified number of rockets that fell in western and northern Galilee. The Shiite Muslim group had vowed to avenge Monday's civilian deaths.
People in and around the town of Kiryat Shemona were told to take refuge in shelters, and the army returned fire.
In a speech to supporters at a Tel Aviv hotel, Barak said he wanted to lend "a strong hand" of support to those spending the night in shelters in northern Israel. And he repeated a campaign promise to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within a year.
With rising troop casualties, there has been increasing pressure to withdraw Israeli troops from the zone in south Lebanon that Israel occupies to protect its villages from cross-border attacks.
Barak also said he would open negotiations with Syria, which keeps more than 30,000 troops in Lebanon and is considered that country's main power broker. Syria has demanded the return of the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as a condition of peace.
CNN's Randy Harber contributed to this report.
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