JERUSALEM — Yitzhak Rabin and the dovish Labor Party scored dramatic gains in Israel's national election Tuesday with a plurality that apparently gives Rabin, a proponent of speedier Middle East peace talks, a large enough base to form a government without the archrival Likud Party, headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
With 96% of the vote counted, returns showed Labor on the way to winning 45 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or Parliament. Meretz, a pro-peace party, took 12, and two pro-Arab leftist parties gained 5 seats altogether, providing Rabin with a bloc that can stop Likud, even in alliance with far-right and religious parties, from returning to power.
The early results gave Likud 32 seats, down from the 40 it held in the outgoing Knesset.
With a so-called "blocking majority" of 62 seats, a Rabin Cabinet could withstand a vote of confidence in the Knesset. But he will undoubtedly try to gain a majority made up of Jewish parties in Parliament by enticing at least one other party, probably from the religious bloc, to his side.
A center-left coalition under Rabin, who would return to the prime minister's job he left in disgrace in 1977, can be expected to try to accelerate Middle East peace talks by quickly offering Palestinians elections and self-rule.
"The first stage has begun," Rabin told jubilant supporters at a hotel headquarters in Tel Aviv. In response, the crowd shouted, "Rabin, king of Israel!"
"I see myself and Labor carrying great responsibility to the nation," Rabin continued. "We will go according to our policies. The nation knows what we plan to do. We plan to realize the dreams we set before the nation."
If the results hold, Rabin will have a strong hand in bargaining for coalition partners. It is clear that Labor has ended a 15-year drought during which the best it could do was share power with Likud, usually in a junior role. Labor dominated the first 30 years of the country's political life but was unseated by Likud in 1977 and held only 38 seats in the outgoing Knesset.
Tuesday's results indicate a halt to the rightward drift of Israeli politics. Likud has not sat in opposition since its 1977 rise to power.
"This is virtually an upheaval, maybe a revolution," said Ehud Sprinzak, a political scientist and expert on right-wing politics.
In addressing his supporters, the 70-year-old Rabin kept his coalition plans to himself but pledged that he would choose partners who "will allow us to execute our policies."
"Don't worry," he continued in a hoarse voice. "All the forces in the nation that agree with our way of seeking peace will be included. The nation knows what we plan to do."
Rabin is willing to divest Israel of land heavily populated by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He also indicated that he would curb construction of settlements in the occupied territories, an issue pressed by the Bush Administration. If Rabin delivers, Israel's strained relations with Washington are likely to heal quickly.
The election appeared to spell the end of Shamir's political career--unless Labor takes Likud into a coalition. For the past two years, Shamir, 76, doggedly pursued the settlement program at the expense of new U.S. foreign aid in the form of support for development loans. President Bush refused to grant loan guarantees unless Shamir froze settlement construction.
In a speech to downcast supporters early today, Shamir promised to fight on. "Sometimes the righteous fall, but in the end all the good things we did will live in Israel's memory. We have achieved things. Never say we give up. No one will break us," he said, waving his fist wildly.
Shamir warned against taking to the streets to dispute the election results. "We will see what will happen without excess anger. We will watch for danger, and we will not abuse the people who want to hurt the things that are holy to us, but to continue on our guard," he said to a flurry of cheers.
He later told a radio interviewer, "We are ready for opposition."
Ariel Sharon, the housing minister and architect of the settlement program, was defiant even as he conceded defeat. "I learned something through the years," the former general said. "It's easy in times of winning. But in hard times, we must straighten the ranks. This is a democracy, and we must respect what has been chosen. If it is necessary, we will act even in opposition. If the left makes a government, it won't be easy, but we will win."
In pre-election predictions, Likud officials had conceded an edge to Rabin but thought the margin could be kept to within fewer than a half-dozen seats. "It's a new ballgame," said government spokesman Yossi Olmert after most of the results were in. "It's clear Israel is moving in a new direction."