One of the most dramatic elections in Israel’s 48-year history left the leadership of the Jewish state in doubt today and revealed deep divisions within Israeli society over the future of peacemaking with the Arabs.
As votes were tallied throughout the night from Wednesday’s balloting, Prime Minister Shimon Peres and right-wing challenger Benjamin Netanyahu were locked in a dead heat. The lead seesawed by fractions.
In unofficial results with 98 percent of the vote counted, Netanyahu had 50.2 percent to Peres’ 49.7 percent.
Earlier projections based on television exit polls and vote tallies showed Netanyahu defeating Peres by a thin margin. Political analysts said the race is too close to call and ultimately could be decided by fewer than 10,000 votes.
A victory by Netanyahu, who has criticized the U.S.-backed peace process championed by Peres, almost certainly would slow the road toward peace with the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors.
The cliffhanger election, the first direct election of a prime minister in Israel’s history, captivated the nation, with thousands of Israelis staying awake until dawn today to follow the results.
Final official results may not be known until late Friday. More than 150,000 absentee ballots, most of them from regular and reserve soldiers on duty, will be counted Friday and could swing the race.
Netanyahu supporters at his Likud Party headquarters erupted in cheers and applause as the TV channels announced revised numbers after 2 a.m. in Israel that showed their candidate ahead. As the polls closed four hours earlier, exit poll projections had given a slight lead to Peres.
Netanyahu cautioned his supporters: “It’s a very close race. We can’t lose hope. We have to wait with nerves of steel and patience.”
Peres did not appear in public Wednesday night, though his supporters, gathered at a Tel Aviv movie house, were jubilant when the initial TV exit poll results were announced.
Exit polls and the vote tally showed the two main parties, Labor and Likud, losing seats to smaller parties in the separate elections for parliament. Labor would win 34 seats, according to the polls, compared to 44 previously and Likud would capture 31, compared to the 40 seats it now has.
The clear winners were two new parties: Yisrael ba-Aliya, formed by former Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, which would win seven seats, and the Third Way, a centrist party opposed to surrendering the Golan Heights to Syria, expected to win four seats.
Religious Jewish parties also can expect substantial gains, increasing their seats in parliament from 16 to 24, according to projections.
The two-man contest for prime minister was widely viewed as a referendum on the Peres government’s land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians. As such, the results revealed a nation deeply split over the peace process that won Peres the Nobel Peace Prize.
The vote capped a subdued campaign. The election was called amid the mourning for Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister assassinated in November by a Jewish extremist.
Despite fears of a terrorist bombing by Islamic extremists opposed to the peace process, the election was peaceful amid heavy security in which 24,000 soldiers and police fanned out across the country.
Peres, 72, vowed to continue his pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East settlement that would include Syria and Lebanon.
Netanyahu, 47, promised to slow the peace process to bolster Israel’s security following a wave of deadly suicide bombings by Palestinian militants opposed to the peace process.
Voters chose the 120-member parliament in a separate vote, choosing from 21 parties who wins seats based on the proportion of the vote their receive.
The parliamentary election results showed that whoever won the premiership would have to court the tiny religious and immigrant parties to form a coalition government.
More than 71 percent of the country’s 3.9 million voters came to the polls, slightly higher than in 1992 when Rabin led the Labor Party to victory. Peres, Rabin’s foreign minister, took over after the prime minister was murdered last fall.
The electoral law changes that allowed direct election of the prime minister apparently prompted voters who otherwise would have cast a ballot for a major party to split their ticket, voting for Peres or Netanyahu and also for a smaller centrist or religious party.
Peres led Netanyahu by almost 20 percentage points in polls until a series of bomb attacks in late February and early March in Israel claimed 60 lives. Since then, Peres had held only a slight lead in the polls and his supporters braced themselves for another terror attack that could cost them the race.
It never came, but the deep division in Israeli society over the peace process remained.
The close vote and compounded problems of forming a governing coalition prompted some analysts to suggest Peres will have to slow his peace efforts in order to secure Jewish public support.
“Israel is basically still divided. But we have seen in the past that if the government goes ahead with a peace initiative usually it is supported,” said Menachem Hofnung, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.