From this morning we are two nations

As Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu was declared the election winner yesterday, Israelis agreed on only one thing: that they are more deeply divided than ever before. "From this morning we are two nations," wrote one commentator who asked: "Who will be brave enough to print the headline: 'Yigal Amir Won'?"

Suddenly the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Amir last November and the loss of the election by Shimon Peres this week are spoken of in the same breath. Ran Cohen, a member of parliament for the left-wing Meretz party, said that in order to halt the peace process its opponents "murdered one prime minister and toppled another".

After the counting of 154,000 postal votes yesterday Mr Netanyahu was declared to have defeated Mr Peres by 29,000 votes or 0.9 per cent of the 3 million votes cast. The peace agreements with the Palestinians were the central issue of the election. But the last year has seen divisions deepen between secular and religious, doves and hawks, left and right.

Mr Netanyahu will have no difficulty in forming a government, however. In addition to his own Likud party, he will give cabinet posts to the Nationalist Religious Party, Shas, the party of Sephardic Jewry, Yahudat Torah, a smaller religious party, the Russian immigrants and the Third Way, a Labour splinter group opposed to withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

David Levy, an old rival of Mr Netanyahu, is likely to be Foreign Minister and General Ariel Sharon may become Finance Minister.

In his bid for office Mr Netanyahu made contradictory promises which leave Israelis in doubt about his intentions. He will not withdraw the army from Hebron and will close Orient House, the Palestinian centre in Jerusalem. He will not accept a Palestinian state. Noam Arnon, the spokesman for the settlers in Hebron, said that thousands more settlers should be brought in.

"This is the only way to take Hebron off the agenda," he said. The government said yesterday that it would not withdraw from Hebron in the days before Mr Netanyahu takes over.

Mr Netanyahu is not publicly disavowing the Oslo accords, supported by 60 per cent of the population. He will also want to mend his frosty relations with the White House. President Clinton yesterday congratulated him on winning what he jocularly called "an Israeli landslide" and offered to meet him soon to form a new partnership in the search for peace.

Hemi Shalev in the daily Ma'ariv said Mr Netanyahu would have to "convince the world at large that Israel is not about to turn itself into a dark, theocratic creature from the Middle East". Given his facility on television and his extensive contacts in the US media, Mr Netanyahu should have no difficulty in doing this.

The test will be how he responds to bombs in Israel or south Lebanon. Since he won the election as the man who could handle "terrorism" more effectively than Mr Peres, he will probably react violently. He has said he will allow the army to enter the autonomous Palestinian enclaves of Gaza and the West Bank towns, if necessary.

Meanwhile, recriminations are starting in the Labour party. Mr Peres's career is presumably over. Haim Ramon, the Interior Minister, and Ehud Barak, the Foreign Minister, rivals to succeed him as Labour leader, are being blamed for a confused election campaign. However, the real architect of defeat is Mr Peres, who failed to call an election immediately after Rabin's assassination.

"The results threaten to poison our lives for the next four years," writes Ron Myberg in Ma'ariv. He says Yigal Amir "had two opportunities to influence events: Once when he killed Yitzhak Rabin and once at the polls. The idea that the man who killed is one who won, will never let us heal."

ELECTION RESULTS

Netanyahu: 1,501,023 (50.4%)

Peres: 1,471,566 (49.5%)

Invalid: 148,681.

Seats in 120-member Knesset. (current parliament seats)

Labor: 34 (44)

Likud: 32 (40)

Shas: 10 (6) *

Meretz: 9 (12)

National Religious: 9 (6) *

Israel B'Aliya: 7 (0)*

Hadash: 5 (3)

United Torah Judaism: 4 (4)*

United Arab List: 4 (2)

Third Way: 4 (0)*

Moledet: 2 (3)*

* possible Likud partners

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