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World - Middle East

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis endorse Netanyahu for re-election

May 12, 1999
Web posted at: 10:50 a.m. EDT (1450 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked up the election support of key rabbinical leaders Wednesday, and accused some Israeli media of "brainwashing" voters in support of his main opponent, Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu's traditional religious backers were beginning to line up behind him ahead of Monday's general balloting.

The Council of Torah Sages, which leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party of Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent, formally endorsed Netanyahu. The decision was based on the recommendation of Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Shas is the third-largest faction of parliament.

"I will not lose, despite massive brainwashing by the press and its attempt at demoralization," Netanyahu told Israel Radio on Wednesday.

Netanyahu said his grassroots support was surging despite polls that show him falling further behind the Labor Party's Barak, who is running as the candidate of the One Israel coalition. Netanyahu dismissed the polls as inaccurate.

"Most of the journalists are enlisted against me." Netanyahu said. "The press fears a repeat of 1996."

Netanyahu won a hard-fought campaign by a narrow margin that year against Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu singled out Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily newspaper, for criticism after it reported doubts about Netanyahu's prospects among Likud leaders. The prime minister complained there was nothing accurate in the paper but the date and the score of a girl's basketball game.

Israeli lawmaker Dedi Zucker, from the left-wing opposition Meretz Party, told Israel Radio that Netanyahu was "trying to turn paranoia into a strategy."

Poll shows Netanyahu trailing Barak

Israelis go to the polls in the first round of the Israeli elections, with five candidates seeking the prime minister's job. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff June 1.

The latest poll done for Israeli Channel 2 showed Barak leading Netanyahu 44 percent to 35 percent. The poll, released Tuesday night, showed that Barak would defeat Netanyahu by a wider margin in a runoff.

Barak's lead would increase to 54 to 36 percent against Netanyahu if two other candidates, Yitzhak Mordechai of the Center Party and Azmi Bishara, the Arab candidate, drop out of the race.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Netanyahu told Likud Knesset leaders that he is actually running only 4 percent behind Barak, within the sampling error of the polls, according to Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper. He said the polls are wrong, because ultra-Orthodox Jews and new immigrant voters lie to pollsters.

Most religious Jews expected to vote for Netanyahu

Netanyahu's government has survived a turbulent three years with the support of Israeli's religious parties, with the Shas party among the most vocal.

Both Netanyahu and Barak sought the Shas endorsement. But most religious Jews are already widely expected to vote for Netanyahu because of his nationalist policies and generous support of Orthodox institutions.

Barak has managed to cut into Likud's traditional support from an Israeli underclass of Jews from Arabic-speaking countries, particularly by recasting Labor as a party sensitive to the plight of Israel's have-nots. Likud has hammered at Barak's status as a member of Israel's elite, made up largely of ethnic European Jews.

The 57-year-old Barak is a former army chief of staff and Israel's most decorated soldier. He helped negotiate the 1994 peace accords that gave Palestinians autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Barak has taken tough positions for talks on a permanent peace agreement, but has not ruled out the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu, 49, has been criticized for his reluctance to execute the Wye River peace accords he signed in October and for his handling of Israel's economy.

He won high marks from economists and investors with a tight fiscal policy and privatization efforts, but the past two years have seen rising unemployment and little economic growth.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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