By Barak Ravid, Yuval Azoulay and Mazal Mualem, Haaretz Correspondents, and Haaretz Service
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is widely believed to be intending to name Barak as defense minister, replacing Amir Peretz, Barak's predecessor as party chairman.
"I will invest all my energy and knowledge into strengthening the defense establishment and the Israel Defense Forces, and returning to Israel the power of deterrence," Barak, an ex-army chief who was Israel's most decorated soldier, told cheering supporters at the party's headquarters in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv.
Barak, who came from behind after trailing a distant fourth in early opinion polls for Labor's top spot, received 54.4 percent of the Labor Party members' votes, to 44 percent for Ayalon. The remaining votes were abstentions. Israel Radio reported that the final count had been 34,561 votes for Barak and 31,100 votes for rival MK Ami Ayalon.
The results suggested that Ayalon's alliance with Peretz - who was knocked out in the primary's first round - hurt Ayalon in the kibbutzim, where Ayalon had enjoyed a lead of some 300 votes in the first round.
Barak beat Ayalon in the counts for Jerusalem, the kibbutzim, moshavim and Druze and Arab sectors. Associates of Ayalon, who was victorious in Lod, Sdot Yam and Shoham, claimed that there had been fraudulent voting in the Arab and Druze communities, where Barak scored a comfortable win.
However, in a congratulatory phone call to Barak, Ayalon promised not to appeal the results, regardless of fraud. He promised to work together with Barak. "Today I take office as Labor chairman, replacing Amir Peretz, and I wish to thank him for his work," Barak told his supporters in his victory speech.
Barak also thanked all the ministers and MKs that supported him in his campaign and called for a unification within the party. "In our joint efforts we will march hand in hand with all the constructive forces in the country. We have the best team, the most experienced group of any party in Israeli politics," Barak said.
"I have been chosen to lead the achievement of the tasks at hand, but I intend to do so with a wonderful team. Together with Ami [Ayalon] and all the other wonderful friends. There is no regime without the public's trust. In these times of anxiety, distrust and the general feeling of a loss of the way and a loss of leadership, the Labor Party must place itself at the head of a democratic alternative for Israel," he added.
Barak called on Labor supporters that had abandoned the party with the election of Amir Peretz as is chairman a little over a year ago to "return home."
"Without anger and without taking inventory, I ask of you and call on you to come home. The Labor Party is your true home, and you know that, you feel that. We will welcome you back with open arms," he said. "The internal competition has come to an end," Barak said, "now we must centralize our efforts and do our best, each in their own field.
We will march in the path of the founder of the state and in the path of the founding generation. A path that combines insistence on security without compromise while simultaneously maintaining a solidarity in Israel, working toward peace and truth, fortifying the leadership and rehabilitating society," he concluded.
Ayalon was quoted as saying that he intends to seek a police investigation into the fraud. However, Ayalon called Barak and congratulated him on his win, and promised he would not appeal the results.
"Unfortunately, there have been grave falsification incidents on a very large scale. Beyond the testimonies that we have heard, we also possess clear proof of fraudulence, including a recording we have recently received," said Ayalon's strategic adviser Yuval Porat.
Meanwhile, Barak's rival Ayalon said late Tuesday that when the final results of the primary are announced, "I will call Barak and we will join hands."
In an interview with Channel 2 News, the chairman of Labor's central elections committee said that "there have been incidences of violence but thus far there has been no indication of fraud."
Official results from the Kibbutz sector were released Tuesday evening with Barak winning 54.4 percent of the vote, compared to 44 percent for Ayalon and 1.6 percent who abstained. In the moshavim, where there was a voter turnout of 72 percent, Barak won 60 percent of the vote to Ayalon's 40 percent.
In the Druze sector, Barak won 4,323 votes compared to 2,518 for Ayalon. In Umm al-Fahm, once a center of anti-Barak sentiment in the wake of October, 2000 rioting in which 12 Arabs were shot dead, Barak received 156 votes compared to 42 for his opponent.
Barak scored a slim victory in Jerusalem, receiving 1,097 votes compared to 1,043 for Ayalon. In Lod, Ayalon received 420 votes compared to only 39 for the former prime minister.
There was a relatively high voter turnout in the election, with 64.5 percent of Labor Party members casting their ballots.
Both Barak and Ayalon invested a great deal of effort in recent days to bring out thousands of voters who did not participate in the first round two weeks ago. Barak cast his ballot in Kfar Sava, while Ayalon voted in Geva Carmel. During a visit to a polling station in Ramat Gan, Barak was asked by a voter to describe the difference between himself and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The difference is that Bibi is a bad person who walks all over people," Barak responded, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. "I do not walk all over people."
While visiting a polling booth in Givatayim, the former prime minister was asked if Ami Ayalon and current party chairman Amir Peretz, who was eliminated in the first round, would have a place in the government should he win. "We will find the appropriate place for everyone," Barak answered. He reiterated the central message of his campaign - that only he can defeat Netanyahu, prepare Israel for war, and make the right decisions for peace.
Shortly after he secured the support of MK Ophir Pines-Paz - who was also knocked out in the first round - Barak declared that Olmert should resign after publication of the Winograd Committee's final report on the government's performance during the Second Lebanon War. He added that Labor will attempt to form an alternative government, but should it fail to do so, this would mean early elections.