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Israel elections Monday, 17 May, 1999, 08:28 GMT 09:28 UK
Likud vs Labour: Spot the difference
By Paul Adams in Jerusalem

Israelis have always enjoyed plenty of options when it comes to casting their votes. Arab and Jewish parties, religious and secular, right and left.

Israel Elections Special Report
But in 1999, the choices are more bewildering than ever and the outcome is consequently hard to predict.

Thirty-one parties are competing for 120 seats in the Knesset, including lists representing regions, pensioners, immigrants, women, fathers, gamblers and users of cannabis.

Initially, five men were running for prime minister, including, for the first time, an Arab. But this race is now reduced to a two-man contest, after three candidates withdrew over the weekend.

This means that the race for the prime ministerial office will not go into a second round. So, by tomorrow Israelis will know who leads them and what the parliament looks like.

What's at stake?

Israelis are going to the polls, 17 months early, for one simple reason. Binyamin Netanyahu, the narrow winner in 1996, could no longer walk a tightrope between his own right-wing ideology and a peace process initiated by his Labour party predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

The peace process, dubbed "Oslo" after its secret beginnings in Norway in 1993, aims to resolve, stage by stage, Israel's half-century dispute with the Palestinians.

For Israel, this means ceding territory and authority to an erstwhile enemy - something that was never going to be easy. But Netanyahu's hard-line coalition - the most right wing in Israel's history - has found it almost impossible to make progress.

In three years, the peace process has lurched from one crisis to another, inching forward occasionally only to run into another brick wall.

At the end of 1998, Mr Netanyahu finally fell off the tightrope, announcing what had, by then, become inevitable: New elections were the only way forward.

If making peace with the Palestinians is the issue which triggered this election, one might expect to see marked differences between the main parties on how to move the Oslo process forward, particularly as this winner will almost certainly preside over the creation of a Palestinian state. But the campaign has thrown up little useful debate.

Spot the difference

Mr Netanyahu has tried hard to paint his chief rival, One Israel leader Ehud Barak, as soft on the Palestinians, notably accusing the former general of being ready to cede parts of Jerusalem ("Barak will relinquish" and "Barak will buckle under" have been among Likud's slogans).

A government led by Mr Barak may well propose solutions for the delicate subject of Jerusalem, but you wouldn't know it from One Israel's campaign rhetoric, which seems intent on out-toughing Likud.

Showing signs of weakness on a subject as emotive as Jerusalem is not the way to win the votes of most Israelis. Challenging Palestinian aspirations, on the other hand, is a tried-and-tested vote winner.

There is almost no intelligent discussion of the peace process. Indeed, Mr Barak's determination to avoid being dubbed a "leftist" (Mr Netanyahu's favourite insult), threatens to kill debate altogether.

Earlier this month, President Clinton addressed a letter to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, urging him not to proceed with a unilateral declaration of statehood on 4 May, and offering support for the Palestinian "right to live free in their homeland".

At a subsequent meeting of the PLO's Central Council, a decision on statehood was deferred - a clear sign that the Palestinians understood that such a declaration might boost Mr Netanyahu's chances of re-election.

The Netanyahu camp claimed a great victory, saying only sustained Israeli pressure had forced "Balfour Declaration for the Palestinians" - a reference to British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour's 1917 letter supporting the idea of a "national home for the Jewish people".

Nevertheless, Mr Barak's strategy seems to have worked.

His lead over Mr Netanyahu has slowly widened, suggesting that One Israel is clawing back the middle ground, lost by Shimon Peres in 1996. With reports suggesting that Likud's campaign is in disarray, One Israel seems confident of victory.

Whichever candidate wins, and whatever government is formed, the peace process won't go away.

The United States seems willing to push talks on a final status agreement with the Palestinians. The coming months will throw up a number of very difficult issues: settlements, refugees, Jerusalem and the borders of a Palestinian state. The peace process can stand or fall on any one of these.

Momentous times, shame about the campaign, though.

Links to more Israel elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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