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Netanyahu Takes the Slimmest of Leads Over Peres

Israel: With most ballots counted, Likud challenger is ahead of prime minister by less than 1%. Absentee votes could sway election. Outcome will affect peace process.


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Shimon Peres and right-wing challenger Benjamin Netanyahu were virtually tied with nearly all of the votes from regular ballot boxes counted in a national election Wednesday that will determine the course of Israel's peace negotiations with its Arab neighbors.

By early today, late returns in the country's first direct vote for a prime minister gave Netanyahu the slightest edge over Peres. With 98.6% of the regular ballot boxes counted, Israel Radio reported that Netanyahu had 50.3% of the vote to 49.6% for Peres. This was after the Labor chief had held a lead throughout the night.

Officials said that in such a tight race, every vote would count and final results could be delayed for several days until the estimated 150,000 absentee votes of soldiers, diplomats, sailors and prisoners are counted.

Netanyahu's swing into the front seemed to confirm a trend that had been building for hours. The government's Channel 1 exit polls also projected Netanyahu would win by 50.4% to 49.6% for Peres.

The seesawing projections alternately sent supporters in each party into fits of jubilation and bouts of nervousness, and prompted speculation about a unity government.

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. "Go home, Peres!" they shouted.

No one expected the end of the count 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 victory not only would give him the personal seal of approval he has long sought, but it would allow him to move forward with 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. 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 former 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 accord.

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.

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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