Former prime minister Ehud Barak stepped back into the political limelight early Wednesday morning when he defeated MK Ami Ayalon by a mere 3.6 percent in a tightly-contested Labor Party leadership race. Barak won 34,542 votes (51.3%), while Ayalon won 32,117 (47.7%). The voter turnout was 65%. The official publication of the result had been delayed until the completion of a hearing on allegations made by Ayalon's associates of forgery in the Arab and Druse sectors.
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The results were released after Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel announced that the claims were not substantive and that the matter had been dropped.
The election brings to an end Amir Peretz's short 19-month reign as party head. It is assumed that Barak, a former IDF chief of staff, will shortly take over the Defense portfolio from Peretz as well.
With his hands raised in the air in victory as balloons were released over his head, Barak said: "I come before you today as leader of the Labor Party instead of Amir Peretz and want to thank him for his leadership," adding that it was the beginning of the long journey to restore Labor as Israel's ruling party.
Below him, the cheering crowd chanted his name, as the jingle "Together in victory" was played.
Barak, who was flanked by Cabel and Social Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog, paid tribute to Labor Knesset members, calling them the best team of politicians in the country.
"I intend to lead together with the wonderful team we haveâ€¦together with Ami and other Labor members," he said.
Barak pledged a policy that "combines uncompromising security, protecting Israel's solidarity and democracy, determined pursuit of real peace, reinforcement of the rule of law and healing Israeli society."
National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that he was sure that Barak would already begin to prepare the party for new elections. He said that in spite of Barak's security focus, he was a man who also had experience negotiating for peace.
Meanwhile, speaking to reporters after Barak's speech, Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog said: "This is a change in Israeli politics. It marks the recovery of the Labor Party, restores it to its place as a powerful coalition partner and puts it in the position to eventually lead the country." He said it was a good sign that Barak won a majority vote in so many different sectors, the Israeli-Arabs, the Druse, the Kibbutzim, and the Moshavim as well as cities in the South, Center and North of the country.
Ayalon praised Barak for his victory and said that he would cooperate with the new chairman. However, he told Israel Radio that irrespective of the result, which he said he accepted, he would submit a complaint to police and to the attorney general over misdemeanors he claimed were witnessed at several polling stations. "Labor is my house and my house must be clean," he said.
The head of a polling station in Shfaram was allegedly caught stuffing dozens of ballots for Barak. In Tira, police came to the polling station after its chairman complained he was attacked by a Barak loyalist. The Ayalon campaign asked to stop the voting in Julis, because people were voting there without identification.
"The towns we complained about have more than 600 votes," an Ayalon associate had said. "That's enough to change the outcome of the election. We don't plan to let Barak steal the election."
The Barak campaign called Ayalon's complaints "whining and alibis of losers."
However, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Cabel said that "even if the allegations were true, which they are not, the overall results were not impacted," adding that at most one was talking about 800 votes, whereas Barak had won by more then 2,000.
Also Wednesday morning, Ayalon phoned Barak to congratulate him on his victory and reassured him that he would not contest the result, despite the allegations.
The 65 percent turnout was slightly lower than the first round two weeks ago. Still, there was a high turnout of 70% in Labor's largest sectors, kibbutzim and Arab communities. There was a low turnout in Ayalon's strongest sector of Tel Aviv and the Negev sector of his ally, outgoing Labor chairman Amir Peretz. Barak won the kibbutzim sector that Ayalon won last time and defeated him by a very large margin in the Arab, Druse and moshavim sectors. Ayalon won in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba and Peretz's hometown of Sderot.
As the day ended, Barak supporters became more and more certain of victory. At night supporters gathered in Barak's headquarters to count votes. Each town that Barak secured brought cheers from the staff members and volunteers. As the counting wound down, they played Barak's victory jingle on loudspeakers in the small narrow city street outside while a number of volunteers danced to the music. It is expected Barak would keep the Labor party in the coalition.
"Barak wants to enter the government as soon as possible," a source close to him said. "He wants to immediately start dealing with the security situation and the Kassam rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip."
Barak has said that aside from replacing Peretz as defense minister, he would maintain the current makeup of the cabinet. He intends to seek a socioeconomic portfolio for Peretz and perhaps a junior ministry for Ayalon. Peretz was not present during Barak's speech.
Peretz's daughter Shani came to Labor headquarters to remove her father's belongings Tuesday morning, ending the Peretz era in Labor.
Ron Friedman, Sheera Claire Frenkel and AP contributed to this report.