Polls give Peres slim lead over rival

Israeli election: Likud win could threaten peace process as Damascus issues reminder to resolve problem of Golan Heights
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The Independent Online
As Israelis go to the polls today Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, is just 3 per cent ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu, his right-wing rival, in an election which is seen as crucial to the future of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The polls confirm that it is very unlikely that Labour, its left-wing ally Meretz and the Arab parties will win a majority in the Knesset, as they did in the last election in 1992. They are more likely to win no more than 57 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Although Mr Peres, if he is re-elected, will claim that Israel has endorsed the Oslo accords and his agreements with the Palestinians, the elections are underlining that Israel is deeply divided over the peace agreement. In 1992 Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated last November, promised peace talks.

Although three main polls show almost identical results, and few voters remain undecided, Mr Peres's lead is so narrow that commentators are refusing to predict the outcome. In the aftermath of the television debate between the two party leaders on Sunday there was a sense that Mr Netanyahu was building up momentum.

The slight increase in Mr Netanyahu's support may also come from ultra- orthodox Jews. He is reported to have reached an agreement with Agudat Israel, one of their parties, to build more houses and meet a number of religious demands, including the closure of a major road during the Sabbath.

The final polls show that Labour will get 39 to 41 seats in the next Knesset, compared to 44 in 1992, and Meretz nine or 10 seats, instead of 12. The Arab parties, Russian immigrants and a Labour splinter group against withdrawing from the Golan are all expected to make gains.

A majority of Jews will vote against Mr Peres but he will hope for wholehearted support from Israeli Arabs. The Prime Minister has 45 days to form a government.

For the first time Israelis will cast two ballots, one for the prime minister and one for the Knesset. The aim of the reform was to weaken the bargaining power of the religious parties but it is not clear that this will happen. Some 3.9 million people are eligible to vote and 80 per cent are expected to do so.

The whole country is treated as a single constituency and a party must get more than 1.5 per cent of the total vote to elect a member to the Knesset. The polls open at 7am and close at 10pm. Results in the past have usually been close and exit polls taken by television stations have often proved an inaccurate guide to the outcome.

In the past three months the West Bank and Gaza have largely been sealed off from Israel as the government tried to prevent another suicide bomb before polling day. Some 24,000 troops and police will be on duty today.

The assassination of Rabin led to a revulsion against Mr Netanyahu and the right. This led Mr Peres to hold the election six months earlier than he needed, but his own standing was badly damaged by suicide bombs in Israel in February and March which killed 63 people.

In an interview yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said that if he were elected, he would refuse to discuss the future of Jerusalem with Palestinians, despite the agreement by Israel to do so under the Oslo accords. He told the daily Ha'aretz: "It is a clause on their agenda and not ours. If they raise the issue, I will drop it. I will not respect any agreement regarding Jerusalem." Likud has repeatedly claimed during the campaign that Mr Peres will divide Jerusalem.