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A narrower race in Israel leaves Labor's Barak in lead

Three candidates drop out over the weekend, leaving two contenders for

As three marginal candidates dropped out of the race for prime minister over the weekend, the way seems paved for Labor Party leader Ehud Barak's probable victory in today's elections.

"[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is going to be beaten, and it's by more than half a percent. The question is whether [Mr. Barak] wins by 10 versus 8 percent," says Hanoch Smith, the director of the Smith Research Center, a leading polling institute. That would be a much stronger mandate than Mr. Netanyahu received in 1996, when he won by less than 1 percent of the vote.

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The two candidates most likely to siphon off votes from Barak have withdrawn from the race, acknowledging that their presence could help Netanyahu triumph as he did in May 1996. Israeli-Arab candidate Azmi Bishara announced he would leave the race on Saturday night, while Center Party candidate Yitzhak Mordechai reluctantly agreed to bow out of the race yesterday.

Also, far-right candidate Benny Begin, son of late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, dropped out yesterday.

Their withdrawal effectively ensures that there will be no run-off election in two weeks, which would be necessary if no candidate garners 50 percent of the vote. Since polls have shown Mr. Barak beating Netanyahu by anywhere from 8 to 13 percent of the vote in a one-on-one race, all signs point to Barak hurdling past Netanyahu in today's election.

Netanyahu said that Mr. Bishara's resignation and subsequent support of Barak showed that the Labor Party planned to team up with ultraleftists and "anti-Zionist forces" under the sway of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, endangering Israel's very survival.

"This is sad moment in the State of Israel," Netanyahu said in a press conference at his office. In a 11th-hour attempt to soak up Mordechai supporters, Netanyahu declared that defectors from his right-wing Likud Party were "coming home."

Mr. Mordechai said that he had made no deal with Barak to drop out of the race, but gave a lukewarm endorsement of the Labor leader. He said that while Barak lacked political experience and had "limitations," voters should give him a chance at the helm.

"I really do believe that the opportunity should be given to Knesset Member Ehud Barak to produce the right sort of balance within the political system, for the greater good of the State of Israel," Mordechai said at a press conference yesterday.

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