JERUSALEM -- Candidates for the Israeli premiership traded jabs in a television debate last night, but whoever wins Wednesday's election is not likely to have solid backing in the parliament.
Polls show neither the major left-wing nor right-wing parties will be close to winning a decisive majority in the Knesset. That means Israel's government will remain dependant on small parties to complete its majority, and will be vulnerable to being easily unseated.
Such a muddled prospect did not stop the candidates for prime minister, Likud bloc challenger Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor leader Shimon Peres from snappish rhetoric during their first, and only, nationally televised debate.
Netanyahu, 46, aggressively attacked Peres, 72, hammering on Israelis' fear of terrorism, and charging that Peres plans to give Palestinians authority in Arab East Jerusalem.
Peres called the charge "a terrible libel" and emphasized Netanyahu's relative lack of experience and opposition to the peace process.
"The decision is not between left and right, but between moving forward or returning back," Peres said at the opening of the 30-minute debate.
"The way of Mr. Peres brought us neither peace nor security. It brings us fear," Netanyahu replied.
Both sides claimed victory after the debate. Netanyahu, who persistently brushed off the moderator's questions to return to the attack on Peres, sought to put the prime minister on the defensive. Peres sought to dismiss Netanyahu as a fear-monger, and evoked the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in an appeal to continue the peace process.
While Israelis watched the debate, Palestinians felt the brunt of Israeli fears yesterday. The government ordered harsh new measures restricting Palestinian movement.
No Palestinians were permitted to come to work from the West Bank or Gaza into Israel or Jewish settlements. The movement of goods was stopped.
Only in the "most extreme" cases of medical emergencies would Palestinians be allowed to enter Israel, the government said. Even movement between Palestinian villages in the West Bank was restricted.
The Peres government is desperate to prevent Palestinian violence before the election. It fears an attack could erase the razor-thin edge in the public opinion polls Peres maintains over Netanyahu.
Netanyahu sought to capitalize on those apprehensions in last night's debate, saying "our children are afraid to get on a bus. Many of you who are watching ask whether the next attack will happen today."
Peres accused Netanyahu's camp of being "small-minded people building an industry of rumors and hate about Arabs." He said, "In the next four years, I intend to reach comprehensive peace."
The candidates also were asked by moderator Dan Margalit about age and sex, issues unusual for Israeli campaigns but not for the U.S.-style of campaigning that has increasingly shaped this election.
Asked if he was too old to be prime minister, Peres quipped "If you had to elect a male model and not a prime minister, then the age would be an issue. I know a lot of people who are young, but their thoughts are very old."
Netanyahu was asked about his distraught 1993 admission on national television of adultery, an incident that has embarrassed the candidate. He tried to deflect the question, saying the affair "was a mistake, but the mistake that Mr. Peres is making hurts the whole people of Israel."
The election will be the first in which Israelis will vote directly for the prime minister. The new election procedure was supposed to strengthen the central authority. It was supposed to lessen the instability and political horse-trading that has long characterized the Israeli system, in which parties in the Knesset elected the prime minister.
But the new system, in which voters cast one ballot for the prime minister and another for a party to represent them in the Knesset, has actually weakened the major parties, according to pollster Hannoch Smith.
"We're going to have much more of a free-for-all in setting up the next government," he said yesterday. "It's very unlikely a blocking majority [of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset] will emerge."
The necessity for the next prime minister to form a coalition may inhibit bold moves, requiring more of a consensus on major issues such as the peace process with Palestinians and negotiations with Syria.
Few analysts predict total gridlock. If the new prime minister cannot form a government by negotiating with splinter parties, a new election would be called in 45 days. Few of the winning parliamentarians will wish to run again so soon, and so will be inclined to support the prime minister.
Furthermore, parties of the Russian immigrants, ultra-orthodox religious Jews, and a centrist faction called the Third Way have indicated a willingness to negotiate with whomever becomes premier.
"I think the system will be much more difficult to manage," said Hebrew University political analyst Reuven Hazan. "This new system is not built on stability."
Pub Date: 5/27/96