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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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