Support grows for Israeli right

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In the final days of the Israeli election campaign, polls show Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the right-wing candidate, closing on Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister. A poll yesterday showed Mr Netanyahu only 2.4 per cent behind Mr Peres, well within the pollsters' margin of error.

The poll was taken before the campaign's only television debate between the candidates on Sunday night in which Mr Netanyahu appeared more forceful and lucid than Mr Peres. Again and again he repeated that the peace process of which Mr Peres is the architect has left Israelis frightened to take a bus for fear of being blown up.

Mr Netanyahu has also received support from ultra-orthodox rabbis whose followers vote as a block. Mr Peres never expected to get a majority of the Israeli Jewish vote, but hopes that a full turn out of Israeli-Arabs will put him over the top.

A poll after the debate showed that 45 per cent of viewers thought Mr Netanyahu won while 41 per cent thought Mr Peres was more convincing. The fact that Labour agreed to a debate at all caused some surprise since their campaign strategy has been to portray Mr Peres, 72, as the experienced statesman compared to the callow Mr Netanyahu, 46. Instead, Mr Peres looked tired and unable to answer Mr Netanyahu's questions about security.

Two polls show the Prime Minister's slim lead of 4 per cent eroding over the weekend. A poll in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot conducted just before the debate showed Mr Peres had 49.5 per cent and Mr Netanyahu 47.1 per cent, down from 51 per cent for Mr Peres and 45 per cent for the Likud leader before.

Those not expressing a preference fell from 4 per cent to 3.4 per cent. Tomorrow's election, in which 4 million Israelis will vote, has been fought in the shadow of suicide bomb attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in February and March which killed 63 people. Hamas leaders were yesterday reported to be debating a new strategy of halting attacks on Israel.

A Hamas official in Gaza said there were differences between local leaders of the Muslim movement and hard-line exiled leaders, which haveintensified. "We must have the decision-making power concerning our affairs. We know better how to run our business than exiled leaders who are isolated from events here," he said.

Meanwhile an Israeli-Arab adviser to Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman, said yesterday that he thought Mr Netanyahu would win the election. Ahmed Tibi said Israel's bombardment of Lebanon last month, in which more than 200 civilians were killed, cost Mr Peres crucial support among Israeli-Arabs, who make up 12 per cent of the electorate.

Cover Story, Section Two