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11th-hour drama reshapes race, leaves two contenders for premier

JERUSALEM, May 16 (JTA) — Israel is poised for a change in leadership, according to a poll released Sunday. Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak will receive 55 percent of Monday’s vote, to 44.5 percent for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the poll, published in the Israeli newspaper Globes. The poll, which asked 1,000 Israelis which of the two candidates they would vote for and had a 3 percent margin of error, was conducted when there were still five candidates in the race. But by Sunday the field narrowed to two, following 11th-hour campaign dramas in which the three other candidates in the field dropped out. One day before Israelis were heading to the polls, Center Party leader Yitzhak Mordechai and right-wing candidate Ze’ev “Benny” Begin dropped out of the running. Their announcements came after Israel’s first Arab candidate for prime minister, Azmi Beshara, dropped out of the running the night before. Reacting to the announcements, Netanyahu reiterated his charge that a vote for Barak would be a vote for a left-wing coalition that depended on Arab parties. At a news conference Sunday, he claimed that Beshara’s withdrawal had been coordinated with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The prime minister also tore into Mordechai, whom Netanyahu sacked as his defense minister in January just before Mordechai announced his decision to abandon Likud for a newly formed centrist grouping. “Itzik Mordechai, look the people in the eyes,” Netanyahu said, echoing a phrase Mordechai had used in a recent televised debate between the two. “Where is your credibility? How can they stand behind you when you join such a left-wing coalition which will concede on all fronts?” For his part, Barak denied that Mordechai’s decision was the result of any backroom dealing, but he did add Sunday that the centrists would “no doubt be an important part of any government we set up after the elections.” He also denied Netanyahu’s claim that he had reached a deal with Beshara. Announcing Saturday night that he was withdrawing from the race, Beshara did not endorse Barak, but he said the list Barak heads would advance the Arab-related issues that had prompted him to run in the first place. When Mordechai announced his withdrawal Sunday, he described the move as “one of the most difficult” decisions he had to make in his life. Until Sunday, Mordechai had defied pressure to withdraw — some of it from other members of his party — publicly insisting on his determination to run. He attributed his change of heart to poll results and the realization that “I would not be able to achieve the primary goal of changing the leadership.” “The prime minister was given a chance and he failed,” Mordechai said. “We must give Barak a chance.” He, too, insisted that he made no deals with Barak. Later Sunday, Begin made his announcement, without calling on his supporters to back any prime ministerial candidate. Throughout the campaign, the son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin had remained noncommittal about the future of his bid, saying he would re-evaluate it as necessary. Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi, a member of the Moledet Party who is running as the No. 2 person on the list headed by Begin, said Sunday that he would vote for Netanyahu, but added that he would not formally endorse the premier. Meanwhile, Israel’s Central Election Commission was studying how to handle ballots already cast for prime ministerial candidates who have dropped out of the race. Israeli diplomats and emissaries abroad cast ballots earlier this month, while soldiers serving in southern Lebanon and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began voting Sunday. In one base in the West Bank, election observers on Sunday removed the ballots for Mordechai after hearing of his withdrawal. But they were ordered to return them until a formal directive was issued by the commission.

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