JERUSALEM -- Right-wing challenger Benjamin Netanyahu took a razor-thin lead today in the election count for prime minister of Israel.
The contest with incumbent Shimon Peres of the Labor Party is so close that it will be conclusive only after 140,000 absentee ballots are counted tomorrow, according to Israel radio.
The national election showed an Israel virtually deadlocked on the peace process, just six months after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist angered by his negotiations with Arabs.
Peres appealed to voters to let him continue Rabin's work. Netanyahu of Likud promised to slow the peace process and resume efforts to populate the West Bank with Jewish settlers.
Early this morning, a count of 71 percent of the votes showed Netanyahu ahead by 50.1 percent to Peres' 49.8 percent. Peres had taken an initial lead yesterday, but Netanyahu steadily closed the gap as votes were counted. Television forecasts predicted a narrow victory for Netanyahu.
Both camps said the race still was too close for either to claim victory or concede defeat.
Leah Rabin, the widow of the slain premier, reacted angrily to the close results, which she called "embarrassing and insulting" to the memory of her husband.
Supporters of the opposition Likud bloc returned to their headquarters to celebrate as the election results turned slowly through the night to their favor. They sensed a reversal of the election four years ago, when Rabin's Labor Party brought an end to 15 years of Likud rule.
"Today will be remembered in the history of the state of Israel as a day of change," Tzahi Hanegbi, a Likud official, predicted this morning to the cheers of supporters.
But he acknowledged, "No matter who is elected, almost one-half of the people will be frustrated or depressed."
The election results for the Knesset -- Israel's parliament -- showed both the Labor and Likud parties losing power to smaller parties, which were expected to support whoever won the premiership.
Netanyahu, 46, is an American-style candidate who campaigned the fear of terrorism and a promise to put thebrakes on the peace process.
Peres' fifth attempt to win the premiership was met by anIsraeli public distrustful of Palestinians, weary of terrorism, and anxious to accept Netanyahu's prescription to"get tough."
The deadlock put a damper on celebrations by the Labor Party over Peres' initial lead. Peres offered no public statement last night, motivated perhaps by the bitter memory of his losing 1981 campaign, in which his supporters prematurely declared him the victor.
In his campaign, Peres vowed to conclude negotiations to give Palestinians control over most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to press for peace agreements with Syria and other Arab states.
But the election returns were proof of the severe split in Israeli society. Analysts said there was an even division between the left and right among Jewish voters, while Peres drew some of his support from a strong, 77 percent turnout of Israeli Arabs, who make up 14 percent of the electorate.
"The Labor Party ran to the Arab parties and called them to vote. I think that it is a disgrace in a Jewish state this is how the vote for the prime minister is determined," complained Rabbi Binyamin Elon, from the right-wing Moledet party.
"This is a racist claim," Leah Rabin replied in an interview on Army Radio. "Aren't they citizens of the state of Israel with equal rights? What kind of scandal is this?"
A victory for Peres would be seen as an endorsement of the historic process of reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which began with the 1993 Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And a victory for Netanyahu would be at least a partial repudiation of it.
Since 1993, the fledgling Palestinian authority has taken control of the Gaza Strip and six West Bank cities. Palestinians hope negotiations on a final, permanent territorial settlement -- talks that began last month -- will lead to a Palestinian state.
Rabin, a gruff former general who presided over initial agreements with the Palestinians and a peace treaty with Jordan, was assassinated Nov. 4 by a right-wing Jewish law student who felt Rabin was surrendering to Arabs land that belonged to Jews.
Peres, his foreign minister, took over. Although the architect of the peace plan and a veteran of nearly 50 years in government, Peres, 72, had never won the full trust of Israelis and had failed at four previous attempts to be elected prime minister.
Election results showed that almost 80 percent of the 3.9 million registered voters went to the polls. The turnout actually was closer to 90 percent of Israelis estimated to be living in the country.
The election was a tense affair held amid warnings of violence from both extremist Palestinians and right-wing Jews.
Thousands of extra police and soldiers were deployed through the country, and the major candidates were engulfed by large security details. Peres canceled election-day appearances because of threats from right-wing Jewish extremists, according his office.
Separate from the contest for prime minister, Israelis also were choosing members of the 120-seat Knesset. This was the first time Israelis voted directly for the prime minister and cast separate votes for the Knesset, a change that helped cut the strength of the two main parties.
The big winners in the Knesset races were parties representing Russian immigrants and the religious. The ultra-Orthodox party Shas won 10 seats, making it the third largest bloc in the Knesset. The new Russian immigrants' party, led by Natan Sharansky, won at least six seats, more than had been forecast.
"We made history. We built something from nothing," said Yuri Stern, who will be one of the party's Knesset members.
Leaders of Shas and the Russian immigrant party favored Netanyahu, but indicated that in return for political favors for their constituents they could also support a coalition led by Peres.
Likud dropped to 30 or 31 seats, from the 40 that it won in 1992. Labor dropped to 35 seats from 44. Labor's left-wing partner, Meretz, dropped from 12 seats to nine.
"We predicted this drop, but not to this extent," conceded Likud official Tzahi Hanegbi, a Knesset member.
The National Religious Party, a right-wing movement supporting settlements in the West Bank, gained in strength, winning 10 seats, compared with six in 1992.
Pub Date: 5/30/96