JERUSALEM, May 31 -- Opposition Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu was elected Israel's new prime minister Friday after the count of remaining votes gave him almost a one percent lead over Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party. Netanyahu won 1,501,023 votes, or 50.4 percent, with Peres coming in close behind at 1,471,566 votes, or 49.5 percent, said Tamar Edry, an official of the Central Elections Committee as she read the results. In the vote for the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament, Peres' Labor Party received 34 seats and the Likud 32, Edry said. However, the Likud Party and other right-wing parties, which gained seats in the election, are expected to form the next government. Edry said the election committee will release the official, final results next Wednesday, but that she did not expect any significant change in the tally. Netanyahu will present a coalition including religious and central parties to the Knesset on June 17 and will probably be confirmed prime minister on that day, said Dan Tichon, a Likud Knesset member. Despite his defeat, Peres vowed to continue struggling for peace in the Middle East. 'It doesn't matter, I will fight for the advance of peace no matter where I am, it doesn't matter,' Peres told Army Radio. 'We shall support the peace process wherever we shall be and we shall oppose any attempt to stop it because, in our judgment, it wasn't a choice between parties but a choice between two different ways,' Peres told reporters outside his home in Jerusalem.
Peres had ensured voters he would continue the peace policies of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist last year. Netanyahu, who won largely on a campaign promise to increase the personal security of Israelis, saw his support rise almost 20 percent following four suicide bombings earlier this year by Islamic extremists that killed 63 people in Israel. Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz Party, which served in a coalition with Labor for the past four years, said the Likud Party will be faced with negotiating a permanent solution with the Palestinians and re-opening peace talks with Syria. 'If it becomes clear that it's possible to make peace with Syria without leaving the Golan (Heights), I will bow my head humbly,' Sarid said of the strategic plateau, which Syria has demanded Israel return in exchange for real peace. Netanyahu has said he will not give the Golan back. Sarid also said he would wait and see how Likud will deal with the issue of Palestinian autonomy, which had been promised by the Labor Party but which Likud has reportedly said it will not allow. 'If it becomes clear that it's possible to reach a final solution with the Palestinians while we continue to control them, I will bow my head humbly because each of those things are impossible,' Sarid said. In Washington, a Netanyahu adviser, Zalman Shoval, said in a television interview Friday that the new government would 'try to reassess the progress which has been made' in Israeli talks with Syria, saying that Syria's President Hafez Assad 'has not made any progress on the peace process with Israel.' Shoval also told the Newshour with Jim Lehrer that the newly-elected prime minister would meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, 'whether we like it or not.' On the issue of settlements, Shoval said the new government 'did not consider Jews living any place in the country as something which is illegitimate,' but at the same time, he said, this did not mean settlements would be 'promoted.' As for the Palestinians living in the self-rule areas on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Shoval said, 'We don't want to be their overlords. ' 'What we have said is that we want Palestinians to run their own affairs completely, in everything except security.' The elections were seen as a referendum for the Oslo accords, which were signed by Israel and the Palestinians and that brought the withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the Gaza Strip and seven cities in the West Bank. Netanyahu has said he would meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat if he 'had to' in order to ensure the security of Israel and to continue some elements of negotiations with the Palestinians. 'We said we want to continue the peace process,' said Dan Meridor, Likud member and a candidate for defense or finance minister. 'We started it about 20 years ago with Menachem Begin,' Meridor said referring to the late prime minister of the Likud Party who agreed to give Egypt the Sinai Peninsula as part of a 1979 peace accord. 'We will do everything we can also at this stage,' Meridor told Israel Radio. A few hours after the announcement of Netanyahu's victory, two Likud supporters shot at Deputy Agriculture Minister Saleh Tarif of the Labor Party near his home in the northern Druze village of Julus, Army Radio reported. Tarif was not injured. Police said they did not know the motives of the shooting and were searching for suspects who got away on foot. Netanyahu's spokesman said he would not make an official speech before Sunday. Soon after the news of his victory, the right-wing leader visited the Western Wall, the holiest site to Jews located in east Jerusalem. Netanyahu was expected to form a coalition within two weeks with several right-wing parties, including the Shas religious party, National Religious Party, the Israel B'Aliya party of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the Third Way, which broke off from Labor in opposition to its peace policies. 'This coalition would include every party except those in the previous coalition,' said professor Bernard Susser of Bar Ilan University. 'It's an exact negation of the last government. 'This is perhaps the most critical victory for the right wing in Israel's history,' Susser added. The central parties slated to join a Likud coalition were expected to moderate the fringe elements of the major party to support certain aspects of the peace process. Once he feel he has formed a secure coalition, Netanyahu will present the new government to the Knesset for a vote. If he receives approval, his government would take over and Peres would step down. The following are the probable members of a Likud-led cabinet and the positions they were expected to receive if Netanyahu forms the government, the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper reported: David Levy, foreign minister; Yitzhak Mordechai or Dan Meridor for defense minister; Yitzhak Mordechai or Rafael Eitan for interior minister; Ariel Sharon, finance minister; Zavolon Hammer of the National Religious Party as education minister.