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Monday, May 17, 1999 Published at 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK

World: Middle East

Barak favoured as Israelis vote

Labour leader Ehud Barak casts his vote watched by wife Nava

Israelis are voting to choose a new prime minister and parliament in a vote that could determine the future of the Middle East peace process.

Israel Elections Special Report
The contest is now a straight run-off between current prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labour-led One Israel coalition. The three other prime ministerial candidates dramatically dropped out of the race over the weekend.

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The withdrawals by Yitzhak Mordechai, Azmi Bishara and Benny Begin are expected to tip the balance in Mr Barak's favour. They could also do away with the need for a second round of voting which is required if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote.

A Channel Two/Teleseker poll gave Mr Barak 54% of the vote and Mr Netanyahu 46%. The pollsters said they had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Casting his vote on Monday, Mr Netanyahu brushed aside opinion polls that put Mr Barak as the firm favourite by at least five per cent.

"The opinion polls always favour the left," Mr Netanyahu said.

Jeremy Bowen: "The campaign has become a referendum on Mr Netanyahu's character"
Mr Netanyahu, who could still avert defeat if there is a massive turnout by religious voters, paid a visit to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, before casting his ballot.

BBC Jerusalem Correspondent Hilary Andersson says Mr Netanyahu is on trial for his government's record, which has left the peace process in tatters and the economy in recession.

Early election

Jerusalem Correspondent Hilary Andersson: "Netanyahu's record on trial"
Mr Netanyahu called the election 17 months early when his coalition could no longer sustain the contradictions between its right-wing ideology and the peace process with the Palestinians agreed by its Labour Party predecessors.

But since the acrimonious collapse of the coalition in December, there has been little debate on the issue.

Both contenders have tried to portray themselves as the candidate most able to deal firmly with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu has tried hard to paint his rival as soft on the Palestinians, notably accusing the former army chief of staff of being ready to cede parts of Jerusalem.

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"With Labour ... we are going to see a Palestinian state at the doorstep of Tel Aviv, a state interested in destroying us, a state which will endanger our very existence," Mr Netanyahu said.

As voting began, it emerged there had been a resumption of building work at the controversial Israeli settlement, Har Homa, in an Arab district of East Jerusalem.

No work has been done on the site since the infrastructure was put in place in 1997 - a move that sparked fierce Palestinian demonstrations and a breakdown in the peace process.

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Mr Barak, a much-decorated former military chief of staff, has pledged that if he wins, Israeli troops will be withdrawn from Lebanon, and a referendum will be held on any final peace deal with the Palestinians.

The victorious candidate will have to tackle the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees - issues that are equally explosive in Israeli politics.

Knesset election

Hilary Andersson: "Netanyahu's nightmare has come true"
Although most attention focuses on the prime ministerial race, Israelis also are voting for a new parliament, the shape of which will have vast influence over the victor's ability to govern.

Under Israel's electoral system, any party receiving 1.5% of the vote (an estimated 55,000 votes) can take a seat in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

The relative ease of being elected has produced a myriad of parties ranging from the serious to the unusual.

There are Russian and Moroccan immigrant parties, personality-based parties such as the Pnina Rosenblum Party led by the former model and cosmetics mogul and single-issue parties such as the pro-gambling Casino Party, a pro-cannabis Green Leaf and a pro-meditation Natural Law party.

No single party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset, and whichever party wins is expected to try to form a national unity government which includes both Labour and Likud.

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