Netanyahu vows 'surprise' win; Barak forces confident
May 17, 1999
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to defy opinion polls and challenger Ehud Barak expressing quiet confidence, Israelis were voting Monday in a showdown election that will set the tone for the peace process in the Middle East.
"We are going to surprise!" Netanyahu declared in the working class town of Bet Shemesh, where he stumped for last-minute votes one day after three minor party candidates withdrew, ending the possibility that the vote would be decided in a runoff.
Voting stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT/midnight EDT) and were set to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT/3 p.m. EDT), when Israeli television networks will predict the outcome based on exit polls.
"It's a day of unity for the country," said Netanyahu, who leads the rightist Likud party. He said the polls "always lean to the left," and he believed "the votes will be different ... the people will decide, and I'm sure they will make the right choice."
"I am optimistic but I know that only with true hard work on the details will we be able to win," Barak said.
"I feel that the Israeli people want to see a new way of governing," Barak said. "The people want to see change, unity and hope."
The Central Elections Committee said 41.5 percent of Israel's 4.3 million eligible voters had cast their ballots by 3 p.m., eight hours into the voting. That is about on the same pace as in the 1996 election.
Barak's supporters shed a "no victory prediction" policy after last-minute polls showed the Labor Party candidate widening his lead over Netanyahu.
"I expect a very clear victory for Barak," a smiling Shimon Peres, No. 2 on Barak's Labor Party slate for parliament, told CNN.
He predicted a "sea change."
A center-leftist who casts himself in the mold of assassinated warrior-turned-peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin, Barak called the election "the first step for change, for unity and for hope."
Opinion polls forecast that Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, would get between 52 percent and 55 percent of the vote in a contest that has focused largely on character.
However, Netanyahu stunned pundits with a narrow, come-from- behind victory over Labor incumbent Shimon Peres in May 1996 and hoped to do it again. Exit polls in that race showed Peres just ahead when voting ended.
Voters on Monday also were electing members of the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, from among 31 contending parties.
The Knesset voted to hold early elections after it became clear that Netanyahu lacked parliamentary support for his handling of the peace process with the Palestinians.
Opinion polls say neither Labor nor Likud will win more than 25 percent of seats each, in a fragmented chamber where whoever holds the premiership may have a struggle to form a stable coalition.
Police said they had detained 25 people in 180 election- related incidents, including suspected ballot fraud and fistfights.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who uniformly back Netanyahu, clashed Monday with secular activists who were stationed in their neighborhoods to monitor voting. In previous elections, some ultra-Orthodox Jews had been caught using dead people's identity cards to vote more than once.
Security forces also sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring entry to Palestinians, for polling day.
Their withdrawal dashed Netanyahu's hopes that no candidate would win the required outright majority, giving him a new head of steam for a second-round runoff against Barak on June 1.
Analysts said Netanyahu's chances lay in a heavy turnout among his core ultra-Orthodox Jewish supporters and hopes that ex-Likud supporters who had backed Mordechai would through their support behind him.
He also is hoping to disprove reports that voters among the 700,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- a key element of his 1996 victory -- have deserted him in droves.
Throughout the personality-driven campaign, Israeli voters told pollsters they didn't see much difference on the issues between Netanyahu and Barak. The one issue that substantially divides the two -- how to revive the peace process -- barely rippled throughout the sometimes vicious campaign.
Netanyahu, who froze peace talks with the Palestinians in December, has said they must fulfill a long list of demands before he brings Israel back to the table.
He also backs a crisscross pattern of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that would make Palestinian statehood, something he opposes, virtually impossible.
Barak wants Israel to return to its commitments under the Wye River peace agreement brokered by President Clinton last October.
The deal calls on Israel to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for security measures. Barak also wants to contain Jewish settlements and advocates a separation from the Palestinians.
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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