JERUSALEM -- Israelis go to the polls today to pick a leader who vows to continue the peace process or one who promises to take a harder line in relations with Arabs.
Public opinion polls show the slightest of leads for Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who became prime minister in November after an Israeli opposed to the peace process assassinated Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin.
But Peres' 3 percentage point advantage is within the statistical margin of error, and Likud bloc challenger Benjamin Netanyahu was buoyed by his aggressive showing in Sunday night's televised debate.
"Too close to call," public opinion analysts conceded on the eve of the election.
The analysts are more certain about the parliament, or Knesset, which they predict will once again be a fractured puzzle in which neither the Labor-led left wing nor the right-wing Likud will hold a majority.
If their prediction is proved correct, the winner of the prime minister's race will have to patch together a coalition with smaller parties. If he fails to assemble a majority to approve his choice of Cabinet ministers, new elections for parliament must be held.
But the race for prime minister, the first direct election of the premier in Israel's history, has drawn a clear choice for voters on the issue of the evolving peace between Israel and the Arabs.
"Shimon Peres wants to accelerate [the peace process] while Bibi Netanyahu wants to slow it down," concluded an editorial in the newspaper Maariv. "The vote focuses on that one question."
Netanyahu, 46, has vowed to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank, expropriate more land and reduce the autonomy powers of the Palestinian authority. He has vowed not to give back the Golan Heights to Syria nor to talk to the Palestinians about the sovereignty of Jerusalem, central issues in the Arab-Israeli negotiations.
"He will not be able to make peace with the Arab world and will not be able to continue the peace process with the Palestinians," predicted Knesset member Abdul Wahab Darawshe, whose small Israeli Arab party may provide the balance of power in the next Knesset as it did for the Labor government in this one.
"I am not upset when I hit Arab refusal," Netanyahu said in an interview in Haaretz. "There will be no territorial compromise."
Peres, 72, has run on a platform of continuation. He has said he will seek a peace treaty with Syria, and complete the negotiations for giving the Palestinians a separate, sovereign entity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But Peres' standing with the Arabs has been shaken by last month's 16-day bombardment of Lebanon by Israel that killed nearly 200 Lebanese, and by the strangling blockade his government has imposed on Palestinian towns and villages to try to prevent terrorist attacks.
Peres' campaign promised to complete a segregation between Jews and Arabs, a concept popular with Israeli voters who see it as a solution to Palestinian violence.
"Without a doubt, terrorism was the central issue of these elections," Peres said in a lengthy interview published yesterday in Haaretz.
In the final polls released yesterday, most showed Peres leading Netanyahu by 51 percent to 48 percent. The almost even split among Israel's 4 million voters seems remarkable, but also is traditional: Most Israeli elections have produced a Knesset closely balanced between the left-wing and right-wing blocs.
"In this country, no prime minister has ever had an absolute majority. We always needed a coalition," said Claude Klein, a constitutional law professor at Hebrew University.
The result, said Klein, has been instability, in which a government could be toppled by the turn of a few votes in the Knesset. After a Likud government was brought down in 1990, Israel witnessed two months of political horse-trading during which Labor tried and failed to gain enough votes to form a government.
"The response was disgust by the public" -- and creation of the new system of direct election of the prime minister, he said. But the experiment has failed to weaken the power of small parties because the elected premier still needs a majority in the Knesset.
If voters select a premier from one camp and elect a hostile Knesset, the prime minister would likely fail to secure a majority and new elections would have to be held.
"The people of Israel will have to learn to vote in a coherent way." said Klein. "It may take one more election for that to happen."
Pub Date: 5/29/96