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Peres ‘wins’ Debate with Shamir, but Voters Say Impact is Small

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There were few surprises and no knockout punches in a television debate Sunday night between Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who are vying for the chance to head Israel’s next government.

While the professional pollsters gave Labor Party leader Peres an edge over his Likud opponent, an overwhelming 92 percent of Israelis surveyed said the debate would not change their opinions when they go to the polls next week. A mere 8 percent said it might.

According to a Maariv poll, viewers thought Peres the better debater by a margin of 48 to 41 percent. Ten percent called the face-off a tie.

The debate, which was not broadcast live, was the first and only televised exchange between the leaders of the two major parties.

Shamir urged the electorate to give his Likud bloc a strong mandate in the next Knesset. Peres appealed for the same for Labor.

Shamir vowed he would not willingly initiate a new unity coalition government should next week’s elections be as close and inconclusive as the last.

A COALITION WITH RABIN?

Analysts suggested Monday that Shamir was not ruling out another unity coalition, but only one in which Peres headed the Labor component.

That gave rise to speculation that in a post-election stalemate, the Likud leader might attempt to form a unity government with Laborite Yitzhak Rabin, who is defense minister in the outgoing government.

Peres said he would not mind heading another unity government if necessary, but did not seem enthusiastic over the prospect.

Urging voters to give him a decisive mandate to govern, Peres said, “This time I promise, if elected, to start negotiations to get the country out of the cycle of periodic war, and to head toward new economic growth.”

The big political controversy of the moment got its share of attention. Shamir denounced as “crass intervention” in Israeli political affairs the interview on an American television network program last Thursday of Jordan’s King Hussein.

Speaking on ABC’s “Nightline” program, Hussein endorsed the Labor Party’s approach to a peace settlement, but warned that a continuation of Shamir’s policies would be an “absolute disaster.”

Many Israelis, including pro-Labor people, share Shamir’s criticism. But Peres called the interview a coup and said he wished there were more such peace moves by Arab leaders “following the Labor line.”

Voter opinion seems to be coalescing. Polls over the weekend showed steady shrinkage of the “undecided” category. The broad consensus of the pollsters is a neck-and-neck race between the two big parties and between the two ideological blocs.

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