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Some 2 Million Go to the Polls in Most Crucial, Hotly Contested Election

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Israelis will go to the polls tomorrow to elect their eighth Knesset in what, it is generally conceded by all, parties, will be the closest and most crucial election in the nation’s 25 year history. There are 2,040,000 eligible voters and despite polls showing large numbers to be still undecided on election eve, the turn-out is expected to be heavy. The forecast for tomorrow is for unseasonably mild weather, The day has been declared a national holiday and the National Elections Committee is making prodigious efforts to get out the vote, including free transportation to polling stations for persons in outlying areas, The 5,150 polling stations throughout the country will open at 7 a. m. and close 11 p.m. Soldiers on active duty will have until midnight to vote at 1150 polling stations provided for them from the Golan Heights to the Suez Canal. Should shooting incidents on any of the fronts prevent soldiers from voting tomorrow, they will be given until Wednesday to cast their ballots.

With Israel’s citizen army still in a high state of mobilization, the soldiers’ vote may be decisive. The number of men in uniform is a closely guarded secret. But until all the soldiers’ votes are in and counted no election returns will be broadcast. That precaution was taken to avoid influencing soldiers who will be voting later than their civilian fellow-citizens. Israeli merchant seamen aboard ships at sea and in foreign ports began voting last Sunday in portable election booths provided to each ship. But their votes will not reach home until several days after the elections. Counting the soldiers’ vote may take two days and it may be two weeks before the final official results are published.

Israeli voters will have a choice of 21 party lists, nine of them new parties which did not participate in the seventh Knesset elections four years ago. The principal contenders are Premier Golda Meir’s Labor Alignment and the non-Labor alignment, Likud, headed by Menachem Beigin (Herut) and Elimelech Rimalt (Liberals). For the first time in Israel’s history, a Labor victory is not being taken for granted. Tomorrow’s elections are being held in the aftermath of Israel’s longest, bloodiest, costliest and most indecisive war, and in the middle of the first peace conference

with the Arabs since the establishment of the State, The Geneva Conference, which opened Dec. 21 and is marking time until after the Israeli elections, will have an important effect on tomorrow’s voting, most expects agree. The results of the voting in turn will effect the course of the conference. The Israeli-Egyptian military committee held its second session of disengagement talks in Geneva last Friday and scheduled its next session for late Wednesday. Jan. 2 (See separate story.)

Under these circumstances, Israelis will be going to the polls with a mixture of hopefully and apprehension. They are hopeful that the Geneva Conference will lead to a genuine peace settlement. But, they are fearful that Israel may be asked to make concessions it regards inimical to its security. This is the major question that overshadows all domestic issues. The parties, large and small, are fighting bitterly down to the finish line. The use of television, radio and full page newspaper ads has been on an unprecedented scale for the past two weeks.

Mrs. Meir’s Labor Party is clearly struggling to preserve a comfortable majority that will allow it to form a new government. Likud is sounding the theme that it is time for a change, stressing the alleged errors of the government before and during the Yom Kippur War and urging the electorate to give it a mandate to form a “national unity coalition.” Labor, for its part, has stated that it will never enter a coalition with Likud and warns the populace of a political stalemate and possible chaos should Likud prevail. Labor is aware that it has many defectors in its ranks and has warned them that abstention or votes for any of the leftist or rightist splinter parties will be wasted votes and will only increase the chances of Likud.

Likud has been branded the party of war, largely on the basis of the uncompromising “don’t give an inch” line of Beigin on the issue of territories. Labor, in turn, has been tarred with the brush of “appeasement” because of its stated willingness to compromise in the interests of a peace settlement, But spokesmen for both parties modified their stands on election eve. Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Yaacov Hazan and Victor Shemtov of Mapam, and other Alighment leaders said last night that they did not accuse Likud of wanting war, only of adopting policies that would lead to new wars.

Premier Meir, addressing new immigrants from Russi at the Habimah Hall in Tel Aviv last night, said that her government went to Geneva neither to surrender all territories–as the Communist and leftist parties demand–nor to demand peace without concessions, as Likud advocates, Beigin and other Likud leaders, contended that any withdrawal would jeopardize Israel’s security. But Rimalt balanced that hawkish line with assurances to the voters that if elected, Likud would miss no opportunity to negotiate directly with the Arabs.

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