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World - Middle East

Withdrawal of minor candidates could sway Israeli election

May 15, 1999
Web posted at: 11:31 a.m. EDT (1531 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Former army general Ehud Barak could get a boost in his quest to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if two minor candidates withdraw from the race before Monday's election.

Azmi Bishara, the first Arab candidate to run for prime minister, and Benny Begin, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, are both said to be considering a pullout.

Aides to Bishara indicated their candidate would make an announcement Saturday night about his future plans. And Begin is expected to decide Sunday whether he will stay in the contest.

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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