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After a Night of Turbulence, Netanyahu Appears Victorious

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The drama appears to be over. The morning after a tumultuous night of voter counting, all that seems to remain is for Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu to be crowned Israel’s next prime minister.

Headlines in Israel’s Thursday-morning newspapers reflected the heady drama of the night before: Nearly all the papers ran with some version of the headlines, “Peres Has Slight Lead.”

Cover photos in the newspapers included pictures of grim-faced Likud Knesset members at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds, where they had gathered to watch the first exit polls.

Only at 2 a.m. Thursday did those polls begin showing a turnaround in Netanyahu’s favor.

And after dawn broke, the actual vote count was also showing his narrow election victory over Labor Party incumbent Shimon Peres.

The new electoral procedures instituted this year created a second drama that will be played on the stage of the 14th Knesset.

Having their first opportunity to cast separate ballots for prime minister and for the incoming Knesset, Israeli voters whittled away at the parliamentary strength of the two leading parties and gave the Orthodox parties and Nathan Sharansky’s immigrant-rights list a prominent Knesset standing.

In the race for prime minister, the Central Election Committee said Thursday that with all but the absentee ballots counted, the total stood at 50.3 percent in favor of Netanyahu, 49.6 percent for Peres.

The gap separating the candidates was 21,399 votes, the committee said.

But the official vote count may not be issued until as late as Sunday, after the approximately 154,000 ballots cast by soldiers, merchant seamen, prisoners, hospital patients and diplomats were tailed.

According to conservative estimates, Peres would need 55 percent of those ballots for a victory.

But many observers believe that the absentee ballots would not alter the outcome, because many of these votes were cast by soldiers, a group that traditionally favors the right.

Peres had been relying on the support of the some 800,000 members of Israel’s Arab community. But between 80,000 to 100,000 Israeli Arab voters reportedly cast blank votes in the race for prime minister.

They did, however, cast ballots for the next Knesset, helping two Arab lists increase their parliamentary presence.

Until the official count was in, Netanyahu refrained from declaring victory.

Peres convened his senior ministers Thursday morning and asked that they refrain from making public statements until the final vote came in.

The Israel Radio quoted senior Labor officials as having raised the possibility of a national unity government in light of the close race.

But Labor Party Secretary Nissim Zvilli dismissed the idea.

“You are talking about two parties with two entirely different sets of principles,” he told Israel Television. “And the fact is that we are looking at a difference of 20,000 votes. This certainly does not indicate that our party’s ideas have lost their significance.”

International reaction to the elections was muted.

President Clinton said American policy on Israel and the Middle East peace process would remain the same on matter who won the election.

“I’m going to wait for the votes to come in and the winner to be announced, and then we’ll see where we go from there,” he told reporters.

Yitzhak Rabin’s widow, Leah, said the Labor Party’s campaign should have stressed her husband’s assassination in order to play on voter sympathies.

Describing her feelings about a Netanyahu victory, she told Israel Television, “I am looking at where I keep my suitcases. I feel like packing my bags and flying as quickly as possible away from here.”

According to the Knesset results available Thursday, the Labor Party own 33 seats, compared to 44 in the outgoing Knesset.

The Likud won 31 seats, compared to 40.

The fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party gained five seats, for a total of 11; the National Religious Party, made up primarily of religious Zionists, won, 10, up from eight.

The fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, which includes Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah, retained its same total of four seats.

The secularist Meretz party lost three Knesset seats, for a total of nine.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the immigrant-rights party founded by Sharansky, won seven Knesset seats.

The Third Way, originally founded as a hawkish lobby within the Labor Party, won four seats.

The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a Jewish-Arab list also known as Hadash, won five seats, up from there.

The United Arab List, an Arab grouping that includes the Islamic Movement, gained two seats, for a total of four.

The right-wing Moledet party lost one seat, for a total of two in the incoming Knesset.

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