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Peace and Politics

SHIMON PERES has decided to seize the moment and ride his new-found popularity to an electoral victory in Israel. Current polls indicate he's likely to succeed, which would be positive for all sides in the Middle East peace equation.

Mr. Peres has been an engine of the peace process, tirelessly pursuing agreements with the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and now the Syrians. His opponents in Israel's Likud Party, by contrast, would like to cut the peace engine.

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Peres had intended to wait until fall to test his strength at the polls. But the slow-moving peace talks with Syria (no assurance of a breakthrough by fall), together with the uncertain duration of his high standing with the Israeli public in the wake of the Yitzhak Rabin assassination, led him to switch to late May or early June.

The risks are obvious. The Israeli electorate is volatile, and unforeseen events - such as renewed suicide bombings by Palestinian radicals - could shift opinion against Peres. This week the West Bank and Gaza were again sealed off following warnings that such violence was imminent.

Palestinians could also boost Peres's chances. If Yasser Arafat, now formally installed as Palestinian head of state, can follow through on his commitment to revise the PLO charter, getting rid of its call for the destruction of Israel, advocates of peace inside Israel can breathe easier. That step won't be automatic, however. Some Palestinians are likely to demand a quid pro quo, such as the full release of prisoners promised by Israel. And, in any case, the charter issue is not likely to swing a lot of Israeli voters.

Peres has to count on continued sympathy for his martyred predecessor and support for the peace process Rabin championed. Significantly, this will be the first Israeli election with a separate, head-to-head race for prime minister. Before recent reforms, candidates for the highest office ran as part of their party's slate, and the process of forming a government was heavily swayed by small, splinter parties.

The new system may give the winner a slightly stronger hand in shaping an administration. But it will also test Peres's relatively colorless electioneering. He has lost many previous bids for prime minister. Likud's standard-bearer, Binyamin Netanyahu, is a young, energetic politician known for snappy sound bites. But Mr. Netanyahu is weighed down by personal scandal and, more importantly, by his party's ties to the religious extremism espoused by Rabin's assassin.

Peres's choice of an early election will be criticized by some as political opportunism, sidetracking the peace talks. But he's probably wise to take up the political task while the climate's favorable. A confirming vote within Israel could put the peace process, with both the Syrians and the Palestinians, more securely on track.

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