Israeli voter turnout heavy
Barak says country wants 'new way of governing'
May 17, 1999
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Front-runner Ehud Barak expressed cautious hopes of victory Monday as Israeli voters turned out in large numbers for a general election that opinion polls forecast would topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
With three hours to go before polling stations close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT/3 p.m. EDT), 52 percent of Israel's 4.3 million eligible voters had cast their ballots, a rate outpacing that of the last election in 1996. Total turnout in 1996 was 79.3 percent.
"I feel that the Israeli people want to see a new way of governing," Barak told reporters during a last-minute campaigning stop in Jerusalem. "The people want to see change, unity and hope."
Netanyahu, trailing the Labor Party leader by about 10 points in pre-election surveys, trawled for votes among his traditional bedrock constituency of working class Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin.
"We are going to surprise!" Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, declared in the town of Bet Shemesh.
The 49-year-old incumbent, in power since 1996, told Likud activists that thousands of voters were "coming home" to his side, following the withdrawal Sunday of minor party candidates.
Barak's supporters shed a "no victory prediction" policy after last-minute polls showed him widening his lead over Netanyahu.
"Here comes the next prime minister," supporters shouted as the 57-year-old former army chief of staff entered the Jerusalem school where Netanyahu had voted earlier Monday.
"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."
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
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