Barak poised to win Israeli election

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EHUD BARAK, the leader of the Israeli Labour party, is expected to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister today after three election candidates dropped out over the weekend.

Mr Barak, an intellectual soldier turned politician and former chief of staff of the Israeli army, is ahead of Mr Netanyahu in the polls by 54 per cent to 46 per cent. If elected he is expected to revive the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu, elected prime minister three years ago, suffered a serious blow yesterday when Yitzhak Mordechai, who leads the Centre Party, said he was dropping out and called on his supporters to vote for Mr Barak. Azmi Bishara, the Israeli-Arab candidate, pulled out of the race on Saturday. Most of his votes are expected to go to Mr Barak. Benjamin "Benny" Begin, the candidate of the extreme right, who opposes agreement with the Palestinians, also withdrew yesterday.

When the election was called five months ago Mr Netanyahu was clear favourite and expected to repeat his electoral victory of 1996. But his campaign has been damaged by the defection of Mr Mordechai, his popular Defence Minister. The Russian and ultra-orthodox parties, part of Mr Netanyahu's government, have fallen out with each other. Russian Jewish immigrant voters, who have decided the results of the past two elections in Israel, are deserting Mr Netanyahu in droves.

Mr Barak said yesterday that "in the last days Israel is uniting to bring about change and hope".

Mr Netanyahu continued to insist that the polls were wrong and that a victory for Mr Barak would lead to a Palestinian state "on the outskirts of Tel Aviv". He also accused Labour of spending $80m (pounds 50.7m) in secret funds to defeat him.

Mr Netanyahu's defeat will be greeted with joy in Washington and European capitals and the Middle East. President Clinton is scarcely on speaking terms with the Israeli leader, blaming him for not fulfilling US-brokered peace agreements with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's fall, page 3