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Israel's Choice: Peace or Security?

In May 29 vote, many Israelis see Peres and 'Bibi' as poles apart

The stakes have never been higher in Israel's political matchup of a lifetime. Some 3.9 million voters will go to the polls tomorrow to vote on separate ballots for a prime minister and the 21 parties on the parliamentary ballot.

This year's unprecedented use of American-style ads, a final-hour debate that has further closed a tiny gap in the polls between the candidates, and an uncertainty about the future make the voters' choice unpredictable, despite the major impact it will have on Mideast peace.

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On the defensive is Prime Minister Shimon Peres, an urbane and experienced politician. He is a bit aloof from the crowds and is a leader in the mold of a European statesman, such as the late French President Francois Mitterand.

If Peres wins he is expected to move ahead swiftly toward a final autonomy agreement with the Palestinians and hasten a Syrian-Lebanese accord - moves for which he has had the tacit approval of the United States. In the election, he has the implied support of President Clinton.

Peres's first act is likely to be withdrawing Israeli forces from Hebron, the last of the West Bank towns with an Israeli presence, to relinquish control to Palestinians.

On the right is Likud's silver-haired Binyamin Netanyahu, master of the sound-bite. He campaigns like a slick American-style politician. Voters often call him by the nickname of Bibi.

If Mr. Netanyahu wins, he is likely to freeze the pullout from Hebron, put talks with Syria and Lebanon on hold, draw out the "final status" talks with the Palestinians, and expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, a step that could torpedo peace talks. He is also likely to clash with the Clinton administration and face opposition from international investors in Israel, who are reaping the benefits of Middle East peace.

But a highly polished makeover of his image since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin six months ago appears to have succeeded in presenting a more moderate, prime ministerial Bibi.

This came out most clearly in a largely sterile debate televised on Sunday between the two. It focused on peace and security but allowed no direct encounters. Afterward, one poll gave Peres a slender 2.4 percent lead over Netanyahu with 3.4 percent of voters undecided.

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Many analysts noted, however, that Netanyahu, who drove home his message that Peres could not be trusted with the country's security, had gained more from the debate. Netanyahu "won because he put all of his verbal force into one card: fear," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote.

But Netanyahu is trying to appeal to peace-minded voters - while still projecting a tough image - by planning a peace conference that would include negotiating with Syria as a part of talks with several Arab states. Ironically, this would meet Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's demands.

But as most campaigns do, this one has pushed both candidates to seek the political middle ground. Peres, Mr. Peace, who has been talking tough on the status of Jerusalem, has projected himself as Mr. Security. And Netanyahu, Mr. Security, who has dropped his taboo on talking to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, has projected himself as Mr. Peace.

The public is skeptical about two politicians who both claim to be the custodians of peace and security. And it is confused by the profound changes in the Israeli governmental and electoral system. It is also mystified by the candidates' dreamy, American-style TV ads promising peace and security. And it is still shell-shocked by the assassination of Rabin and a recent wave of suicide bombings by militant Palestinians. Consequently, three small groups can decide the election: the Islamic militants who would almost certainly hand victory to Netanyahu if they detonate a bomb just before the election; about 200,000 new Russian voters who tend towards Netanyahu; and 500,000 young voters who lean to Peres.

On the surface, the election is about peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But it is more fundamentally about the pace of Israel's emergence as a post-Zionist, modern, free-market, hi-tech state, which may have much to do with the process of peacemaking with the Arab world in what Peres calls the New Middle East.

Peres's major thrust is an appeal to reason: People may laugh at Yasser Mr. Arafat but he is the only Palestinian leader who's ever been prepared to fight terrorism.

Netanyahu's appeal is almost exclusively to emotion: TV ads of Peres hand in hand with Arafat juxtaposed with the devastation of suicide bombings highlight that militants have been able to operate under Arafat's rule. Netanyahu tries to convince voters that Zionism is still needed to make Israel a strong, post-industrial state.

A small group of undecideds will seal the country's destiny in a contest that is too close to be predicted by polls. "The truth is that we don't really know what is going on," says Hebrew University political scientist Avraham Diskin, noting that polls don't reflect the way the ultra-Orthodox, the Russians, and the Israeli Arabs will vote. "A small percentage of people could change everything."

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