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Netanyahu Assures Arabs That Israel Still Wants Peace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu offered Arab leaders assurances Friday that he will stay the course for peace as he assumes the mantle of leadership in a nation deeply divided over relations with its neighbors.

After he was declared the winner of Wednesday’s national elections, Netanyahu telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein to proclaim his support for Middle East peace.

The prime minister-elect received calls from President Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac and defeated Prime Minister Shimon Peres congratulating him. Clinton, who had all but campaigned for Peres, invited Netanyahu to visit the White House after the new government has been formed.

Netanyahu told Mubarak that the peace between Egypt and Israel, forged by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is a foundation stone for peace in the entire Middle East, Israel Radio reported. Egyptian television said he also expressed a wish to visit Egypt.

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Hussein congratulated the leader of the right-wing Likud Party and said he is confident that bilateral work will continue, the radio said. Netanyahu told the king that he sees in him “a good friend and not only a good neighbor.”

After two days of counting paper ballots, the Central Elections Committee announced that Netanyahu won 50.4% of the vote to 49.5% for Peres--a razor-thin margin of fewer than 29,500 ballots.

The 46-year-old Netanyahu’s victory represents the passage of power from the fathers of the Jewish state to a new generation born after the 1948 War of Independence.

It also signals the end of a lifelong career in public office for the 73-year-old Peres, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian interim peace agreement, negotiated in Oslo, that Netanyahu branded a failure during the campaign.

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Neither “Bibi” Netanyahu, as Israelis call him, nor Peres made any formal statements Friday. But Raanan Cohen, head of the Labor Party faction in parliament and the party’s representative to the election committee, acknowledged the Likud victory.

“Bibi Netanyahu is Israel’s next prime minister,” Cohen said.

Netanyahu donned a black skullcap after the announcement of the results to pray at the Western Wall, which is considered the holiest site in Judaism. The Likud leader is secular, but he won the prime minister’s race with the endorsements of rabbis and the votes of religious Jews.

Netanyahu was cheered in Jerusalem’s Old City by thousands of supporters chanting “Bibi! Bibi!"--but the onset of the Jewish Sabbath prevented further celebrations. Netanyahu said he will make his victory speech in Jerusalem on Sunday.

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Formal negotiations to form a government coalition with small moderate and religious parties also were scheduled to begin after the Sabbath.

Peres told Labor Party activists waiting outside his house Friday that in spite of his defeat, he will continue to work for peace.

Clinton telephoned Peres to convey his “deep personal regard and appreciation” for his leadership in the peace process, White House spokesman David Johnson said.

Netanyahu’s plans for the 3-year-old peace negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were unclear. He has made contradictory statements about his willingness to proceed and his opposition to many key components of the process thus far.

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He had said he planned to strengthen Jewish settlements in the Palestinian-dominated West Bank, allow Israeli troops to reenter cities under Palestinian rule for security purposes and prevent the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron--all violations of the peace agreements.

Likud Party elder Ariel Sharon insisted Friday that the withdrawal from Hebron will never take place.

“The Likud’s position on Hebron is very clear. Israel will continue to be responsible for security all over Hebron,” Sharon said on Israel Radio.

Asked if his remarks were meant to tell Clinton and Arafat that the chapter of the interim accord on Hebron was null, he said: “Yes. Our government can’t accept the Oslo [peace] agreement exactly as it is.”

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Under the Labor government, Israel has completely withdrawn its troops from the Gaza Strip and six West Bank cities. It has also pulled back from about 400 Arab villages in the West Bank but has temporarily reserved the right to return for security purposes.

Peres delayed the withdrawal from Hebron that was scheduled for March after a wave of suicide bombings in Israel by the Muslim extremist group Hamas that killed more than 60 people.

Netanyahu during the campaign pointed to the bombs as proof of the peace agreement’s failure.

He has said that Arafat has not held up his end of the bargain by stopping terrorism.

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Sharon reiterated his well-known disdain for Arafat on Friday, calling him “a murderer who deliberately murdered children, babies, women and old people.”

This drew an angry response from Ahmad Tibi, an Arab citizen of Israel who advises Arafat and who ran briefly for the Knesset.

“The last man who ought to talk about the murder and massacre of children is Ariel Sharon,” Tibi said.

Tibi was referring to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in September 1982, when Sharon was defense minister. Hundreds of Palestinian women, children and old men in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps were massacred by Lebanese militiamen while the camps were surrounded by Israeli soldiers.

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It is unclear if Sharon speaks for Netanyahu, but he is expected to be in the new Cabinet.

Labor officials, meanwhile, were dissecting the election results and trading accusations for the failure of their campaign.

Peres’ housing minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, laid blame on the country’s approximately 440,000 registered Arab voters, 19,000 of whom he said had cast their ballots for Netanyahu.

“The fact that they chose to vote with Bibi or against Peres when we were the ones leading the peace process is simply incredible,” he said.

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Arabs voted for Peres at almost twice the rate of Jews.


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