Barak inches ahead in battle with Netanyahu

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ISRAEL GOES to the polls on May 17 with a record six candidates for prime minister and 33 parties - including Greens, Pensioners and "Pnina Rosen- blum", a women's rights party led by a former beauty queen of that name - fighting for 120 Knesset seats.

When nominations closed at midnight on Tuesday, the prime ministerial challengers included a first Arab contender, Azmi Bishara, who is an iconoclastic philosophy professor and staunch Palestinian nationalist, and Yosef Bagad, an eccentric, chauvinist rabbi, neither of whom has any chance. Of the four credible candidates, opinion polls suggest neither Yitzhak Mordechai, of the new Centre Party, nor the far right's Benny Begin will win more than 20 per cent of the vote.

It looks likely to be a contest between the Likud incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Labour challenger, Ehud Barak, though they may have to go to a second round on June 1 if neither tops 50 per cent first time.

Polls point to a tight finish, with Mr Barak inching ahead.

Mr Netanyahu's campaign has failed to lift off. His party is short of money. A week after Mr Barak launched his bid, the Likud has not yet held an opening rally.

The party's prospects do not look good. The latest polls give Likud 20 seats, compared with the 32 won in 1996.