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Fate Of Mideast At Center Of Debate Peres, Netanyahu Hold Only Face-Off Before Israeli Election

The debate issues included one candidate’s adultery, the other’s old age, the fear of terror bombings and the very future of the Middle East.

But in the end, in a country known for its bare-knuckles politics, analysts declared it a dull show.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres and right-wing challenger Benjamin Netanyahu met Sunday in a prime-time TV debate in Israel, their only face-to-face meeting before Wednesday’s national election.

Reinforcing their campaign themes, Peres vowed to continue pursuing peace to make Israel and the region more stable, while Netanyahu countered that the policies of Peres and his Labor Party have risked Israeli lives.

In a tight race which will determine the future of the Israeli-Arab peace process, the debate was regarded by both camps as potentially pivotal for winning over undecided voters.

As many as three of every four Israelis had been expected to tune in to the 30-minute debate, taped earlier in the day and broadcast Sunday night. CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp. also carried the debate in full.

Peres leads Netanyahu by 4 to 7 percentage points with at least 10 percent of voters still undecided, according to polls last week.

Political scientists and veteran Israeli journalists said they considered the debate a draw. The show was roundly criticized as bland by many commentators, due in part to a rigid format agreed to by the campaigns that limited direct exchanges and was managed by a moderator, Israeli television journalist Dan Margalit.

“Nothing dramatic happened, which means I think we’re back where things began,” said Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, 47, a telegenic candidate whose shrewd use of the media helped elevate him to head of the right-wing Likud Party, told voters that Peres has brought Israel “to the brink of destruction.”

Peres, 72, evoked the memory of his revered predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination by a Jewish extremist in November generated an outpouring of support for the Labor-led government’s peace policies.

“The messenger was killed,” Peres said, “but not the message to establish real peace and prosperity.”

Referring to Peres’ campaign ads which show the gray-haired prime minister surrounded by admiring teenagers, Netanyahu said: “It is not enough, Mr. Peres, to pose with children. You have got to take care of their security.”

Three months ago, a wave of suicide bombings in Israel by Palestinian militants opposed to the peace process claimed more than 60 lives.

Under a new law, the election Wednesday will be the first in which Israelis will vote directly for prime minister as well as cast ballots for a party in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. That has made personality and character greater issues in the race that in past Israeli campaigns.

Asked about his age and whether he thinks it would hamper his ability to do the job, Peres quipped: “If you had to choose a male model and not a prime minister, age would be an issue.”

Referring to Netanyahu’s hard line toward peace policies, which many Israeli analysts believe would reignite the Palestinian uprising against Israel, Peres said: “I know many people who are younger in age, but their thoughts are old.”

The moderator asked the thrice-married Netanyahu whether his handling in 1993 of the disclosure of an extramarital affair had showed poor judgment. Netanyahu admitted on national television at the time that he had cheated on his wife, and he said a fellow Likud leader who he did not name was trying to blackmail him with a videotape.

Composed, Netanyahu said Sunday he had learned as an army commando to make “life and death” decisions. “Regarding that affair, I expressed deep regret. It hurt me, it hurt my wife and it hurt my family. It was a mistake,” he said.

Not surprisingly, both candidates declared victory after their debate.

But the real test, said analysts, is whether Peres or Netanyahu will gain a boost in overnight polls expected to be published in Israeli newspapers today.

“Anything can happen,” said independent pollster Hanoch Smith, who called the debate “very, very important.”