Israel election now one-on-one as Mordechai, Begin quit
May 16, 1999
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's race for prime minister became a two-candidate showdown Sunday after three minor candidates withdrew, leaving incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu to face opposition leader Labor leader Ehud Barak one-on-one.
Ultra-nationalist candidate Benny Begin, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, was the last of the three to announce his withdrawal. Earlier Sunday, former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai withdrew from the campaign and threw his support behind Labor leader Barak, running under the banner of the One Israel coalition.
Polls had shown that Barak was inching toward victory in Monday's election, but he remained just shy of the majority needed for an outright win over incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.
The withdrawals of Begin and Mordechai -- coupled with Saturday's pullout by Arab candidate Azmi Bishara -- could be enough to put Barak over the top and avoid an unprecedented runoff.
"In the last days, Israel is uniting in order to bring about a change and hope," Barak told supporters in Tel Aviv after Begin's withdrawal. "I am calling on all of Israel, to all those who believe in uniting the country ... to come with me to vote for One Israel, and together, to bring about the change."
Netanyahu called the election a clear choice between right and left and urged Mordechai's supporters to "come home to Likud."
Mordechai quit Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party in January, joining the new Center party to challenge his former boss. Mordechai said Sunday that he was withdrawing from the race to give Barak a better chance of winning in the first round of voting.
"I said and repeat that one of our central goals is to replace the prime minister," he said at a news conference in Tel Aviv.
Polls released Friday showed Barak mustering between 44 and 48.5 percent of the vote, with Mordechai coming in third with between 4 and 7 percent. Bishara was expected to pull between 2 and 3 percent, while Netanyahu drew about 35 percent of those polled.
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 run-off election, making turnout and result predictions difficult.
But the dramatic weekend events eliminated the need for a run-off. And in a poll released Sunday, Barak was the clear winner in a head-to-head match-up.
The Hanoch and Rafi Smith poll in the Globes newspaper -- taken Thursday and Saturday before the withdrawals -- asked 1,000 Israelis whether they would vote for Netanyahu or Barak in a two-man race. Barak led with 55 percent to Netanyahu's 44.5 percent.
Bishara, the first Arab candidate to run for Israel's highest office, did not endorse any other candidate. 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 Labor 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.
On Sunday, Netanyahu accused Barak of striking a deal which had the "blessing and support" of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to get the Arab candidate to quit the race.
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.
CNN's Randy Harber contributed to this report.
Jerusalem Dispatch: Single-issue election puts spotlight on Netanyahu
Likelihood of runoff big question as Israeli race winds down
Israel's Institutions of Government
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