Israeli election field cut by two

Mordechai, Begin drop out, leave Netanyahu slim hope Polls give Barak a majority


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bid for re-election suffered a punishing blow yesterday as two contenders dropped out of the race, leaving the combative incumbent in a head-to-head contest with his leading rival.

The decisions by former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and ultranationalist Benjamin Begin to abandon their campaigns cleared the way for Ehud Barak, a retired army chief of staff, to win today's election outright, avoiding the need for a runoff.

Hanoch Smith of the polling firm Smith Research Institute revised earlier poll results and predicted that Barak would win today with 54 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Netanyahu. Polls in recent weeks have shown Netanyahu to be trailing Barak, but similar surveys in 1996 failed to predict Netanyahu's upset win.

While Netanyahu alleged that a vote for his opponent would endanger Israel's security, Barak focused on the chances of Israel returning to the road of peace and mending its increasing splits along ethnic and religious lines.

"We now have a real challenge of unifying the country, of switching from divisiveness and dissension to unity and hope for the future," Barak told cheering supporters at a rally in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'anana.

Israel's 4.2 million voters have two ballots to consider today; one for the 120-member parliament and the other in the direct election for prime minister.

Until yesterday's events, Netanyahu expected the crowded field of candidates would ensure a June 1 runoff between him and Barak, who served as Netanyahu's superior in an elite commando unit 27 years ago.

Mordechai, the fired defense minister who abandoned Netanyahu's Likud coalition to start a new Center Party, grudgingly ended his candidacy after pledging for weeks that he was in it until the end. Mordechai, 57, conceded he didn't have the votes to oust Netanyahu.

Mordechai said he made no deal with Barak to quit the race. He said he did not want to prolong the "wave of hatred" dominating the campaign.

"I go with clean hands, and I focus only on what is right for the good of the country and for the good of society," said Mordechai, who was surrounded by fellow Center Party members and his wife, Kochi, at a morning news conference.

Mordechai, a Kurdish Jew and the first of Arab descent to run for prime minister, asked his supporters to "overcome your emotions" and consider Barak. But he noted that while Barak has experience and advantages, he also has "limitations."

The polls showed Mordechai receiving about 7 percent of the vote. Pollsters and analysts were quick to add that they could not predict whether Mordechai voters would join Barak and his One Israel campaign. Roni Milo, a Center Party leader and former mayor of Tel Aviv, encouraged the group's supporters to vote for Barak.

Mordechai's announcement followed the decision of Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara to abandon his candidacy Saturday. Bishara did not openly endorse Barak, but he said he expected the Labor leader would win.

Begin, a member of Israel's parliament and the son of the late prime minister Menachem Begin, refused to endorse either candidate.

Netanyahu, 49, now faces the very real possibility that he will be delivering a concession speech after the polls close at 10 p.m. today (3 p.m. EST). But Netanyahu, who has dismissed as "lies" poll results that show him trailing badly, hasn't given up.

"We're going to surprise people," he said. "We're going to determine the outcome of this thing and we're going to win."

The embattled prime minister led the charge against Barak in his signature, accusatory style. Flanked by three cabinet ministers from his beleaguered Likud, he resorted to condemnations delivered in rapid-fire pronouncements.

He characterized Barak and "the left" as allies of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the enemies of Israel. He accused Barak of cutting a deal with Bishara that would bring the Labor leader votes at the expense of Israel's security. Israeli Arab citizens account for more than 15 percent of the voting public.

"Let's remember who Bishara is, a man who denies Israel's existence, has praised the Hezbollah, who has said he has taught Israel a lesson," the prime minister said at a boisterous news conference dominated by Netanyahu's conservative supporters.

Netanyahu played on the fears of nationalist, religious Jews who hold sacred the biblical land of Israel and oppose trading it for peace. He charged that Barak, in a coalition with left-wingers, anti-Zionists and Arab parties, will "establish an Arab state in the heart of the heart of the country, in Tel Aviv, that endangers the security of each of us and Jerusalem." Repeating a plea he made several days ago, Netanyahu implored Mordechai supporters in his Likud coalition and other disaffected members to "come home to Likud."

"Each citizen who goes into the voting booth needs to know that he is making a decision on one question and one central question only -- the strengthening of the nation, its security and its fate," Netanyahu said as he fended off questions from reporters. Television broadcasters interrupted the prime minister at one point to chastise him for using the press conference for campaign rhetoric.

Labor leaders swiftly responded to Netanyahu's charges. Avraham Burg, the head of the Jewish Agency and a Barak supporter, likened the prime minister's plea to Likud members to a "homeless man inviting them into his living room."

Haim Ramon, an Israeli lawmaker from Barak's Labor Party, said Netanyahu draws his support from ultra-Orthodox Jews and the nationalist, religious camp. But mainstream Israelis want a change, he said. "They want a prime minister who speaks the truth."

Pub Date: 05/17/99

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