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World - Middle East

On eve of Israeli election, candidate Mordechai withdraws

May 16, 1999
Web posted at: 5:24 a.m. EDT (0924 GMT)

In this story:

High price of running for office<

Ambivalence among Israeli Arabs

Netanyahu believes he can win<


JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's Yitzhak Mordechai withdrew from the prime minister's race on Sunday, a day before the general election.

The Center candidate urged backers to support Labor leader Ehud Barak, a move that earlier opinion polls said could clinch Barak's bid to oust Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Monday's vote. Mordechai said Netanyahu should be replaced.

Mordechai, former defense minister in Netanyahu's Cabinet until he was fired by the prime minister, joined with other disaffected Likud members to form the new Center Party. But as the campaign progressed, his support began to wane.

On Saturday evening, student demonstrators gathered outside Mordechai's house in a Jerusalem suburb, pleading with him to get out of the race.

It is widely believed that Mordechai's departure would be a boost to Barak. Barak on Sunday urged minor candidates to drop out of Monday's general election to boost his chances of ousting right-wing Netanyahu in one round.

Analysts said the 57-year-old Barak, given a lift when Israeli Arab candidate Azmi Bishara bowed out of the race late on Saturday, had a chance to win an absolute majority in the vote and avert an unprecedented runoff on June 1.

"Whoever doesn't rescind his candidacy is helping Netanyahu save himself for another two weeks. Everyone has the right to run but this is immature behaviour," Barak said, in a reference to Mordechai.

High price of running for office

Barak said a second round would cost 700 million shekels ($170 million) to stage and the money could be better spent.

"The candidates and the voters should think what we can do in a government under my leadership in the area of health and education" with the funds, he said in remarks published in Ha'aretz newspaper.

Opinion polls show Barak would be almost sure of a first-round triumph if Mordechai, trailing a distant third with only around six percent of votes, were to abandon the race.

Right-wing ultra-nationalist Benny Begin, the fourth candidate in the race, has given no indication he will withdraw.

Political analysts say Likud party Netanyahu, who would garner 35 percent of the vote according to a poll published on Friday, hopes to survive Monday's vote to gain a second chance in a second round.

They said he was banking on a poor Israeli Arab turnout in a second round while his ultra-Orthodox Jewish supporters return to the ballot box.

Ambivalence among Israeli Arabs

"I believe our candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, will win the election," Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said.

Asked about Netanyahu's standing in the polls, ex-general Sharon said: "When you're in the trenches you don't look right or left. You have just one goal, to reach the destination."

Bishara stopped short of endorsing Barak, giving voice to ambivalence among Israeli Arabs about the ex-army chief who has spelled out tough positions for peace talks with the Palestinians.

But Netanyahu's Likud was quick to seize on Bishara's withdrawal to swipe at Barak.

"It is clear to every citizen that Azmi Bishara's move was coordinated with the Labour Party and Ehud Barak," said Netanyahu's Communications Minister Limor Livnat.

"Azmi Bishara, who in essence wants to annihilate the state of Israel as the Jewish state, is today uniting with Ehud Barak," she said.

Bishara, a philosophy professor, says he wants an Israel defined not as 'the Jewish state' -- a formulation his party says discriminates against Arabs -- but 'a state of all its citizens'.

The Geocartography Institute said it would publish a poll later on Sunday taken after Bishara's announcement. Avi Dgani, the institute's main researcher, said it showed Barak's momentum was building.

"If I had to bet...I would say that Barak will win in the first round but I wouldn't bet too much money," Dgani told Army Radio.

Netanyahu believes he can win

Netanyahu, who came from behind in the closing days to win the last election three years ago, has attacked the polls as inaccurate. The prime minister has told supporters he can still win if the election goes to a runoff between him and Barak.

Israel has never had a runoff and no one knows how many people will turn out to vote.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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Israeli Elections

Likelihood of runoff big question as Israeli race winds down
May 15, 1999
Barak's lead over Netanyahu grows in Israeli poll
May 13, 1999
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis endorse Netanyahu for re-election
May 12, 1999
Israel, PLO welcome delay in office-closings order
May 11, 1999
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March 10, 1999
Israeli Cabinet defies EU over Jerusalem
March 14, 1999

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