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World - Middle East

Arab candidate drops out of Israeli PM race

May 15, 1999
Web posted at: 3:02 p.m. EDT (1902 GMT)

NAZARETH, Israel (CNN) -- Arab candidate Azmi Bishara pulled out of the race for Israeli prime minister Saturday night, increasing the chances that former Gen. Ehud Barak could defeat incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu in the first round of voting.

Bishara did not endorse any other candidate, but traditionally Arab Israelis have voted for the Labor Party, part of Barak's "One Israel" alliance.

Bishara's decision left four men in the race, but Benny Begin, the son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, was expected to announce Sunday that he too was dropping out.

Both Bishara and Begin were forecast to receive 2 to 3 percent of Monday's vote. The withdrawal of either candidate was expected to help Barak, but it remained an open question whether he would receive enough support to give him a win in the first round of the elections on Monday.

Polls last week showed Barak garnering between 44 and 48.5 percent of the vote with Bishara and Begin still in the running. A majority of votes is necessary for an outright win.

Netanyahu, according to several press reports, has been telling Likud insiders he can still win if the race goes to a runoff on June 1. Even Barak's supports admit a runoff could be "problematic," because Israel has never had a runoff and no one knows who will turn out to vote and in what numbers.

Netanyahu has said that the only legitimate poll is the election itself. He has said repeatedly that the Israeli media is afraid he will stage another come-from-behind victory, as he did in 1996 by beating Shimon Peres. Netanyahu's margin of victory in that race was just over 29,000 votes.

A fifth candidate -- the one polls say clearly could put Barak over the top if he quit -- has said he will stay in the race until the bitter end. Former Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who polls indicate will get between 6 and 7 percent of Monday's vote, entered the race after he was fired by Netanyahu.

Barak, Netanyahu and Mordechai were expected to resume campaigning Saturday night, at the end of the Jewish Sabbath.

CNN's Randy Harber and Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.

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