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At High Noon, Peres and Netanyahu Neck and Neck

May 28, 1996

KIRYAT MALACHI, Israel (AP) _ At high noon in Israel’s most crucial election, Prime Minister Shimon Peres and challenger Benjamin Netanyahu walked the same flat, sun-drenched streets, talked the same language of fate, and promised the same secure future.

The difference came in their pace and pitch: Netanyahu, encouraged by polls showing him breathing down Peres’ neck in Wednesday’s elections, was buoyant and confident.

``There’s no longer a gap in the polls,″ he told cheering, ululating followers Tuesday in Ashkelon, a working class town 12 miles north of the Palestinian autonomy region in the Gaza Strip. ``We will win.″

Peres, however, seemed fatigued as he stumped the same town and pleaded with local Labor party faithful to get out the vote.

``Everybody has to roll up their sleeves and go house to house,″ said a clearly worried Peres. ``Don’t view anything as sealed, everything is open.″

Voters on Wednesday will be making what could be the most important decision in Israel’s history _ whether to continue Peres’ peace policies or to elect a challenger who opposes further land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians. The stark choice contrasted sharply with those of earlier elections, which featured more differences in style than substance.

``We must choose a different direction!″ Netanyahu told a crowd in Kiryat Malachi, a town where support is strong for his Likud Party’s polices of no more territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

``The victory is not mine or the party’s, but a victory of direction,″ said Peres, the architect of Israel’s peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Peres and Netanyahu both prophesied doom if the other candidate won.

``I think (terrorism) will increase if the Likud comes to power,″ Peres said. ``Because if the Likud will take over, I think the peace process will come to an end.″

Netanyahu was equally emphatic.

``Mr. Peres says we’ve had four wonderful years. Does he live here?″ Netanyahu said. ``Has he been on a bus recently?″

Netanyahu lagged well behind Peres in the polls until a wave of suicide bombings carried out by Muslim militants opposed to the peace process in February and March left 63 people dead. Two of the bomb attacks occurred on buses.

Netanyahu and his supporters portrayed Peres as being in the pocket of the Arabs.

``You in Kiryat Malachi will determine this election,″ the town’s popular Likud mayor, Moshe Shimon, told the crowd. ``Not those in Taibe, not those in Kafr Kassem,″ he added, referring to large Arab Israeli towns.

Peres won the backing of the Arab party Hadash, which gets about one-fifth of the Arab vote. Israeli Arabs initially had been reluctant to back him because of last month’s air and artillery strike against Lebanon in which over a hundred Lebanese civilians were killed.

Those alliances were inferred in posters throughout both towns declaring Netanyahu as the candidate ``good for the Jews.″

Peres slammed such rhetoric as racist. ``Whoever lays down a racist line in the democratic process is a danger to his own people,″ he said.

But it seemed to work.

``The fact that the Arabs want Peres is the best reason to vote for Bibi,″ said Zvi Cohen, a 24-year-old student, calling Netanyahu by his nickname.

Netanyahu’s final campaign stop in Kiryat Malachi was a school run by the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher movement, a move calculated to consolidate his hold on the religious vote. He punctuated his promises to win with a gesture skywards, adding, ``with the assistance of the heavens.″

The crowd of Hasidic Jews, down to rolled-up shirtsleeves in the mid-90s heat, cheered. Several major rabbis have urged their followers to vote for Netanyahu, whose relative youth and good looks worked wonders Tuesday among this stringently modest crowd.

``Isn’t he the hunkiest?″ swooned 12-year-old Nehama Wigovsky as she chased his motorcade, tripping over the hem of her full-length skirt.

And the enthusiasm was not just a local phenomenon. Netanyahu was closing in Peres, with some polls Tuesday suggesting Peres’ lead had dwindled to two percentage points.

Peres won 51.5 percent of the vote to Netanyahu’s 48.5 percent in two separate surveys. Both had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Crowds greeting Peres were subdued _ not surprising in Ashkelon, a flat town pocked with housing projects that is natural Likud territory.

Still, the fact that Peres chose to tour the town at all was a testament to the changed mood since the Nov. 4 assassination of his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish extremist opposed to the peace process.

Leftists _ and some right-wingers as well _ said Netanyahu had done little to check the extremist rhetoric that contributed to the poisonous atmosphere leading up to Rabin’s murder. Since then, both major parties have worked to keep the elections civil.

Youthful supporters on both sides, decked out in blue and white _ the colors of the flag _ laughed with each other and exchanged bottles of water as they handed out stickers and flyers at junctions throughout the region.

It was a change from the notorious 1981 campaign when Peres, the Labor candidate for prime minister, was chased out of similar towns.

Peres appreciated the difference.

``I made my way through without any interruptions and condemnations,″ he said. ``It was almost a voyage of love and understanding.″

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