In a stunning upheaval of Israeli politics, Ehud Barak--a decorated soldier who has vowed to seek peace with the same Arabs he once was assigned to kill--on Monday defeated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a landslide.
Netanyahu, faced with a devastating indictment of his three-year tenure, abruptly quit the leadership of his center-right Likud Party after the overwhelming loss.
"This is, indeed, the dawn of a new day," Barak, head of the center-left Labor Party, declared early today to thousands of jubilant supporters who jammed into Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin--Barak's mentor--was assassinated four years ago.
"It is time to end the division and to find harmony," Barak said, "whoever we are."
With 99.9% of the vote counted, Barak had 56% to Netanyahu's 44%, according to unofficial returns. Voters Monday also chose a parliament, which promises to be fragmented.
The election of Barak, who retired from a 35-year military career to be catapulted into leadership of the Labor Party two years ago, is expected to improve tense relations with Washington and breathe life into a peace process that lay comatose under Netanyahu.
After calling the winner, President Clinton said in a statement: "I will continue to work energetically for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace that strengthens Israel's security. I look forward to working closely with Ehud Barak and his new government as they strive to reach that goal with their Palestinian and Arab partners."
At the festive rally in Rabin Square, Barak saluted his former commander, who was slain by an ultranationalist Jew, and clasped hands with his widow, Leah Rabin, who beamed. Young and old people, cheering, dancing and weeping with joy, lay flowers at a memorial to Rabin, waved his portrait and chanted Barak's name over and over.
"Rabin's way has won!" they shouted amid the din of car horns and crescendo of peace songs.
"This is a true turnaround," said Tzipora Keller, 68, who was in the plaza when Rabin was shot to death. "I feel like hope is restored. This victory belongs to the voice of peace and the voice of sanity."
"I feel like I've been liberated," said Menachem Kerni, 58, who brought his children to the square.
Barak supporters hailed his victory as the end to three years of a deliberately divisive government that isolated Israel diplomatically, damaged its economy and alienated large segments of its citizens, especially the majority of secular Jews who saw themselves as hostages of the demands of politically powerful ultra-Orthodox sects. Barak has 45 days to form a government, and Netanyahu will serve as caretaker until he does.
Just a few hours earlier, in a dizzying succession of events, Netanyahu stunned Israelis by conceding defeat scarcely half an hour after the polls closed. He immediately announced he would resign as head of Likud, the first time in Israel's history that a prime minister has been so thoroughly forced from power.
"The people have decided, and we respect that decision," said the normally combative politician, who until now has always displayed seemingly magical survival skills.
Misty-eyed, Netanyahu delivered an unusually gracious concession speech, thanked his wife, Sara, and hard-line foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, and then left the stage. Party activists wept and shouted, "No! No!"
Netanyahu became familiar to U.S. audiences as one of Israel's most articulate representatives in the United Nations before returning to Israel early this decade. He seized the helm of the foundering Likud Party and restored it to the head of the government with his election as prime minister in 1996.
But Netanyahu's abrasive, arrogant style and a growing credibility problem began to take their toll.
Barak, meanwhile, campaigned under the direction of a team of pricey U.S. consultants, led by Democratic image-maker James Carville. Analysts said Barak won largely because the majority of Israeli voters were tired of the Netanyahu government.
For his part, Netanyahu failed to focus the campaign on the successes of his administration, such as a concrete reduction in terrorism, allowing his foes to emphasize his own controversial character.
"The main issue here was the deep desire to oust Netanyahu from office," political commentator Nahum Barnea said.
Likud Party officials said Monday night that they had tried to repeat issues in this campaign that had worked in 1996--such as security and a perceived threat to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel--but that didn't work, and made Netanyahu look out of touch.
Analysts also noted that, in this land of close elections, where the voting public has traditionally been divided into two camps--the left and the right--the apparent margin in Monday's race was unprecedented.
"The least ideological prime minister suffered the most severe blow in Israel's 50-year history," Hebrew University political scientist Menachem Hoffnung said.
To an outsider, Netanyahu had appeared to self-destruct. He angered or alienated many of his key core supporters, pitted them against each other, or simply watched as they went to war with one another.
Netanyahu, known by his nickname, Bibi, rose to power by appealing to a wide range of "outsiders." He was able to paste together an extremely fragile coalition of Russians; Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, Jews; the working class; and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Then, as the economy faltered and ethnic differences were fanned, the coalition unraveled.
Elias Aflalo, 45, is a conservative Sephardic Jew who grew up in the hardscrabble "development town" of Kiryat Malachi. Israel created a string of the towns along its southern tier in the 1950s to absorb waves of working-class Sephardic immigrants, and it was here that Netanyahu's political rise was sealed in 1996.
In the 1996 race, he pushed all the right buttons, blaming their plight on injustice and discrimination and promising to fight on their behalf. But with factories closing and unemployment tripling, Kiryat Malachi and similar towns are suffering.
On Monday, Aflalo, a lifelong member of Netanyahu's party, voted enthusiastically for Barak.
"Why did I change my mind?" Aflalo said. "One reason: Bibi. Just because of Bibi."
Netanyahu's defining crisis came when he lost the far right and the Jewish settler movement by signing last year's Wye River land-for-security accord with the Palestinians. Then he lost everyone else when he failed to follow through with the agreement.
Barak's supporters, meanwhile, were united in their fear of groups that, under Netanyahu, had gained power, such as the ultra-Orthodox. Netanyahu failed to comprehend the anger generated by the haredim, as they are known.
Netanyahu apparently failed at making Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat the boogeyman of the race. Arafat, speaking late Monday, congratulated Barak after earlier urging Israelis to "elect peace" in their voting.
Barak also made inroads into other portions of the population that previously supported Netanyahu, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
In Rishon Le Zion, Israel's fourth-largest city and one with a large Russian community, the vote that had sided with Netanyahu in 1996 was clearly split.
"I just say, if the guy's not any good, then send him home," said homemaker Tamar Ezra, 41, who had not voted for Labor previously. "The economy and security are in the pits; I don't believe [Netanyahu]. I don't sleep well at night knowing that he's in control."
In Israeli Arab towns, the sentiment was similar. Arabs constitute about 10% of the electorate.
"I voted for Barak, not because I like him, but because I think he can do something for peace," Saleh Idris, a 44-year-old teacher and father of three, said as he emerged from the voting booth in the northwestern town of Taiyiba.
Predictably, Netanyahu's support remained strong among the haredim community.
In Bnei Brak, a religious suburb of Tel Aviv, men in black hats and beards drove through the streets shouting through a megaphone in an effort to get out the vote: "Gevaldt," they cried in Yiddish. "Help! The land of Israel is suffering!"
Yael Sitrenbauer, 18, was voting for the first time. She knew to vote for Netanyahu, because her rabbi told her to.
"I think for myself, but what I think and what the rabbi thinks are the same thing," said the young student, dressed in a long skirt and long-sleeve sweater that is typical of observant women. "I want Judaism to be preserved in Israel."
As is standard practice in Israel, the turnout in Monday's voting was heavy, estimated at more than 80%. More than 300 incidents of violence and fraud were reported, but police pronounced the day's proceedings as "orderly overall."
Video of remarks by Barak and Netanyahu and other events related to Monday's vote in Israel is available on The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/israel.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* Name: Ehud Barak
* Age: 57
* Party: Labor
* Family: Married to Nava; three children
* Career: Served in the army for 36 years, became Israel's most decorated soldier; 1991-1995, served as armed forces chief of staff; master's degree in systems analysis from Stanford University; 1995-1996, served as foreign minister in Labor government; 1997, elected Labor leader.
HIS VIEWS ON KEY ISSUES
WEST BANK/GAZA: Wants to resume negotiations with the Palestinians on status of West Bank and Gaza and says he will hold a national referendum on any agreement reached.
PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD: Says Israelis and Palestinians should live in separate entities but has not come out openly in support of Palestinian statehood. He says a majority of Jewish settlements should remain under Israeli rule.
ISRAEL'S ECONOMY: Has promised to create 300,000 jobs during his term as prime minister.