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Peres, Netanyahu Are in Virtual Tie, Early Returns Show

Israel: Partial count has prime minister ahead, but exit polls give lead to Likud Party challenger. Outcome will affect peace talks. Final result may not be known for days.


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Shimon Peres and right-wing challenger Benjamin Netanyahu were virtually tied in early results in a national election Wednesday that will determine the course of Israel's peace negotiations with its Arab neighbors.

Preliminary results in the country's first direct vote for a prime minister, based on 51.9% of the votes, showed Peres leading by 50.7% to 49.2% for Netanyahu, but those returns were mainly from Tel Aviv and other traditional strongholds of Peres' Labor Party.

Television exit polls, however, gave contradictory results. Both channels projected Netanyahu would win by a margin of about 2%.

The seesawing projections alternately sent supporters in each party into fits of jubilation and bouts of nervousness.

Officials said that with such a close race, final results could be delayed for several days.

With the first returns in favor of Peres, young Labor activists, the core of Peres' hard-fought campaign, erupted in cheers, waved flags and olive branches and, using the rival candidate's nickname, chanted, "Bibi's had it!" One banner read, "Bye, bye Bibi."

Netanyahu supporters started out glum, but soon were dancing on chairs and whooping with delight.

No one expects the final results to be anything but a cliffhanger in this deeply divided country.

For Peres, even a narrow win would be a tremendous victory.

The 73-year-old Nobel laureate has led his party to defeat in four previous elections. A triumph not only would give Peres the personal seal of approval he has long sought, but it would also amount to a vote of confidence on his policy of trading land for peace with the Palestinians and possibly neighboring Syria.

Victory for Netanyahu would be a stunning upset by the 46-year-old politician, who has never held an executive office. It probably would bring a halt or a major transformation to the peace process with the Palestinians that has been going on since 1993.

Neither candidate claimed victory, but some supporters did.

"A win is a win," Yossi Beilin, one of Peres' closest confidants and a member of his Cabinet, said early in the evening. "We will continue the peace process."

Netanyahu urged his supporters to be patient.

"The night is long. . . . Don't lose hope," Netanyahu said to cheers. "Whatever happens, it is clear that a large part of this nation supports our way."

Netanyahu has branded the government's peacemaking with the Palestinians a failure and insisted that he could achieve peace without further territorial concessions.

He played on Israeli fears of terrorism, while Peres put forth what he termed a vision of hope.

It will be up to the victor to conduct final negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the next three years to determine the fundamental questions of Israel's borders, control over Jerusalem, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian statehood.

Negotiations with the Palestinians are to be completed in 1999 under the breakthrough peace agreement that Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed with Arafat in Washington in 1993.

Rabin was slain Nov. 4 by right-wing Jewish law student Yigal Amir, who opposed the agreement.

Many Israelis visited Rabin's grave on election day, and his widow, Leah, disturbed by the apparent closeness of the vote, urged people to continue his legacy.

"I don't understand how half of this nation does not understand that there is only one way and none other, that we are on the road to peace," she told Channel 2 TV. "This embarrasses me."

Earlier, she had tearfully described voting for the first time without Rabin at her side. And she termed it "an unprecedented scandal" that Amir, who is in prison, was allowed to cast a ballot.

Voting took place without any major problems, but the legacy of violence was felt when Peres was forced to increase his security and change his schedule because of reported threats from Jewish extremists.

As early results showed Peres in the lead, Rabin's longtime friend and confidant Eitan Haber said: "Up on Mt. Herzl, surrounded by thousands of his soldiers, Yitzhak Rabin lies in darkness. He was very stingy with smiles. He had only half a smile. But I am confident he is smiling now."

The Likud Party, which had closed its headquarters when it looked as if Netanyahu might lose, reopened it at 2 a.m. when a Netanyahu victory suddenly appeared possible.

In Washington, President Clinton kept a vigil in the White House, receiving a stream of partial election results relayed from the U.S. Embassy in Israel through National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.

White House officials were visibly crestfallen when the results began to turn against Peres, whom Clinton virtually endorsed as his preferred partner in the Middle East peace process.

A spokesman said Clinton planned to telephone the winner of the election as soon as the result was clear.

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