Secular parties now prospering

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ISRAELIS CAST two ballots yesterday: one yellow and one white. One was for the next prime minister and the other for one of 31 parties standing for the Knesset (parliament).

The election was being held 12 months early because the far-right parties in the 120-member Knesset turned against Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister. The divisiveness of his three years in office stemmed in part from his reliance on a coalition of parties - Russian, right-wing nationalist and religious - which had little in common.

Mr Netanyahu was elected by a margin of 30,000 votes out of 3 million in 1996. But the right, religious and ethnic parties did much better. From an early stage in the campaign, Shimon Peres, the prime minister, was clearly not going to get a majority to support the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.

This time the trend was in the opposite direction, according to the polls. The secular centre parties were doing well, with the Centre Party expected to get up to five seats, as was the anti-clerical Shinui.

Parties on the far right were likely to do less well, though Benny Begin's National Unity should get three or four seats. There were two Russian parties: Yisrael Ba'aliyah and Yisrael Beitenu. Together they were expected to gain 10 seats.