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Israeli race for prime minister narrows

May 27, 1996
Web posted at: 12:25 p.m. EDT (1625 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- With elections just two days away, Israelis appear sharply divided over whom they want to lead their country.

Peres

Polls published Monday show Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is gaining popularity among Israelis and is edging out Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The news comes one day after a debate between the two candidates. Afterward, each side claimed victory.

"I think we are going to win," Peres said of his election chances.

Netanyahu adamantly disagrees.

Netanyahu

"As I walk in the streets, I listen to the people and they are very happy. I think that's a major shift and the polls show it too," Netanyahu countered. "I think we are going to win this election."

Israelis will directly elect their leader Wednesday for the first time. They will cast two separate ballots -- one for prime minister and the other for a political party running for parliament.

Peace or security

In Sunday's debate, Peres and Netanyahu gave conflicting views of peace and security for Israel.

Peres, the 72-year-old Labor Party leader, said Israel should continue with the peace process by following the course of slain leader Yitzhak Rabin.

debate

"The choice is a clear choice," Peres said, "between going forward with the peace process or backward to the old business of settlements, confrontations and violence."

Netanyahu said national security, not a peace policy, should be Israel's primary concern.

Peres' peace policies have backfired, making Israelis more susceptible to terrorist attacks, Netanyahu said. In all, Netanyahu used the word fear 11 times in 14 minutes. However, he did not spell out how he would combat terrorism.

Rabbi backs Netanyahu

Rabbi

Although analysts say neither candidate scored an overwhelming victory in the debate, Netanyahu managed to win over one of the country's most important voting blocks, the ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Both candidates are secular, but Eliezer Schach -- an elderly rabbi who is revered by the ultra religious -- urged his followers to vote for Netanyahu. That could prove significant, especially since some polls show Netanyahu trailing Peres by a mere 2 to 3 percentage points.

"Let's say 80 percent of them vote for Netanyahu -- maybe 10 percent for Peres and 10 percent decide not to vote at all," said analyst Leslie Susser. "What we get is a shift in Netanyahu's favor of somewhere between 2 or 3 percent."

With the election looming and no more campaign advertising after Monday, it's now up to Israeli voters to participate in what Peres has called "the most crucial election in the history of the state of Israel."

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report.

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