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Recount demanded in Israel’s Labor primary

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JERUSALEM, Sept. 5 (JTA) — In a scene evoking the turmoil of last year’s U.S. presidential vote in Florida, Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is pledging to go to the courts to contest the outcome of this week’s Labor Party primary.

Ben-Eliezer made the remarks following a tight race Tuesday against Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. Final unofficial results showed Burg ahead by 1,088 votes of the 60,000 cast, giving him 50.1 percent of the vote to Ben-Eliezer’s 48.6 percent.

At a news conference Wednesday, Ben Eliezer claimed there was widespread fraud in voting in the Druse sector. He called on Burg to agree to the appointment of a committee headed by a retired judge to determine the outcome of the vote.

The vote is “one of the gravest political scandals in our political history,” Ben-Eliezer told a news conference.

“This is a theft! This is a theft!” he continued. “This is not South America; this is Israel.”

The Burg campaign opposed Ben-Eliezer’s demand for an inquiry, and called for Burg to be recognized as the winner.

“It is too bad the defense minister is prepared to do anything within his power to alter the decision of the voters, even at the price of the Labor Party,” Burg’s camp said.

Labor’s election committee was meeting Wednesday to discuss Ben-Eliezer’s petition for a recount. Attorney Ram Caspi, who represents Ben-Eliezer, said that according to party rules a declaration of the winner should be delayed by 48 hours until a hearing on the appeal has taken place, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Ben-Eliezer’s main complaint concerns eight ballot boxes in Druse communities. On Wednesday afternoon, the head of Labor’s election committee, Effi Shtensler, announced that results from one polling station had been disqualified, the Jerusalem Post reported, but it was not clear how this would affect the results.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that 14 disputed ballot boxes had been recounted, and their results certified.

With the landslide defeat of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in elections last February and the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians, the Labor Party has seen its political representation shrink in the Knesset. With no permanent chairman since Barak resigned, the winner of the primary is expected to set the tone for Labor’s efforts to rehabilitate itself before the next election, scheduled for November 2003.

The Iraqi-born Ben-Eliezer, 65, is a long-time party member and relative hawk, who is considered close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Barak endorsed Ben-Eliezer in the party primary.

The Jerusalem-born Burg, 46, is a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a modern Orthodox Jew and a relative dove.

During the campaign, Burg’s camp accused Ben-Eliezer of running a scare campaign, telling voters that Burg would pull Labor out of the national unity government. Ben-Eliezer’s camp accused Burg of dirty politics.

Reports said Ben-Eliezer had strong showings in the north, while Burg led in the Negev.

Ben-Eliezer was said to have led Burg among Israeli Arabs, though Burg led among the Druse.

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