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Israeli Vote May Pivot on Immigrants

May 29 election could be close as Peres, Netanyahu try to find those extra votes

A group of Jewish immigrants from Iran erupts in spontaneous clapping and dancing as a singer delivers an up-tempo folk song in Farsi, the language of Iran.

Children hold bunches of blue-and-white balloons, the colors of the ruling Labor Party, as more than a thousand immigrants from all over the world wait for Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the main hall of the Jerusalem Conference Center.

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A carnival atmosphere prevails among the crowd of immigrants who have recently arrived from countries as far afield as Russia, Kurdistan, Iran, Tunisia, Ethiopia, and Argentina.

They have been brought together by the Labor Party to hear Mr. Peres, who is desperately trying to muster enough votes for victory in Israel's May 29 election.

Many of the immigrants do not even speak Hebrew. But it is a night on the town, and they do their best to listen as Peres delivers his message exclusively in Hebrew.

"The past four years have been the best years we, the Jewish people, have ever had in our entire history," says Peres, using his favorite theme of the way the Middle East peace process has brought Israel unprecedented prosperity and acceptance.

"From a pariah state, we have become one of the most beloved and admired states in the world," Peres proclaims to the rally, held last Thursday.

Role of immigrants in Israel

He stresses the historical achievement of aliya (immigration) in bolstering the number of Israelis from 3 million to 4.5 million in recent years. The country has absorbed some 700,000 new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union, in the past seven years.

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"The economy has grown extraordinarily.... We have the highest growth rate in the entire Western world and have nearly doubled our income," he says.

There is no applause from the crowd.

Most members of the immigrant communities list economic issues - jobs and housing - as among the most urgent for them. Many have not directly benefitted from the liberalization of the economy and the new trade and investment flowing into Israel as a result of the peace process.

Opponent's pitch

Binyamin Netanyahu, Peres's rival in the election for prime minister and leader of the right-wing Likud Party, has begun to harp on this theme increasingly in his speeches. Likud TV advertisements are putting more stress on economic issues, too.

"Labor keeps talking about prosperity.... What prosperity?... Are you more prosperous?" the Likud ads ask voters rhetorically.

But the polished Mr. Netanyahu, who speaks perfect English, received a subdued welcome last week from the poor residents of the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikvah.

Likud ads have portrayed Peres as walking hand-in-hand with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat while Israelis continue to die in suicide bombings by Islamic militants.

Netanyahu insists that while he would honor agreements already entered into with the Palestinians, he would change track in the final negotiations to ensure that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel alone and that Jewish settlers would be allowed to expand their presence on the West Bank.

"We would give the Israel Defense Force freedom to act as they did before Oslo," he repeatedly tells election meetings in reference to the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

But Netanyahu has had to do some delicate political footwork to adjust to the new realities of the peace accord. First he abandoned his refusal to deal with the PLO. Then last month he said he would deal with Mr. Arafat if it was in Israel's interests.

But "I certainly don't think we should grovel before him or run to his beck and call every time he snaps his fingers," Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post May 10.

Peres senses Netanyahu's vulnerability on the peace issue and often ridicules his opponent's weakness as a peacemaker, particularly Likud's reluctance to make territorial compromises to reach a peace accord with Syria. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is widely seen as the key to peace with most of the Arab world.

"The Likud say they will make peace," Peres told the new immigrants. "How? Bibi [Netanyahu] will go to Assad and say: 'Listen, Labor was willing to compromise [with] you, but I'm not willing to give you anything.'

"That's a secure peace? That's a sure way not to have peace," Peres said.

In defending his relationship to Arafat, Peres added "The truth is that he is the first Palestinian who is truly fighting terror. He seeks them out, he shoots them. This is a tremendous change."

Why Peres fell in polls

Within 24 hours of Peres's speech to the new immigrants, Israeli soldiers shot and captured a top fugitive of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. Israel says Hassan Salameh masterminded three of the four suicide bombings that rocked the country. Concern over the bombings reduced a comfortable lead in polls that Peres had held over Netanyahu.

On the day before Mr. Salameh's capture, a poll conducted for the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot gave Peres a 5.4 percent lead over Netanyahu and showed that only 6.2 percent of voters are still undecided.

Labor was projected to win 41 seats and Likud 39 seats, leaving the balance of power in the hands of smaller parties representing Russian immigrants, Israeli Arabs, and religious groups.

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