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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Peres Facing Loss In Tight Israel Poll

JERUSALEM -- Right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu maintained silence Thursday after apparently edging out Shimon Peres as Israel's next prime minister, while a stunned world wondered if Middle East peace talks would continue.

Early exit polls had indicated a Peres victory but a series of nail-biting counts through the night culminated in a total from all regular votes of 50.3 percent for the Likud party leader against Peres' 49.6 percent.

The final result from Wednesday's vote may not be known until Sunday after the counting of ballots from 150,000 Israelis who voted away from home. Peres, leader of the center-left Labor Party, would need to win 60 percent of these votes, a feat most pollsters say is beyond him; traditionally, these votes favor the right.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had all but publicly endorsed the re-election of Peres as the man to make Arab-Israeli peace, said U.S. policy would remain the same -- but he was awaiting formal word on who had won to "see where we go from there."

Netanyahu, 46, a master of the television soundbite, had narrowed the poll gap and finally overtaken the Nobel Peace Prize winner Peres, 72, pounding away relentlessly on the campaign theme that the peace policies of the Labor Party leader had undermined Israeli security.

Peres, who became prime minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jew last Nov. 4, told his colleagues not to comment on the outcome until the final votes were counted.

But concern at the outcome among Peres' supporters, Arab governments and Israel's friends in the West showed they were prepared for Netanyahu to form a government on a platform that he said would ensure Israeli security.

"If Netanyahu wins, it is probable that the peace process will slow down," said Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

Some foreign leaders who had invested heavily in the peace process begun by the United States five years ago tried to put an optimistic gloss on the election, saying it had a completed. An official said he would meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein in Jordan next week.

Mahmoud Zahhar, spokesman of the Moslem militant Hamas group in the Gaza Strip, said it could step up violence if a new Israeli government attacked Palestinians. The group's military wing killed 59 people in suicide bomb attacks inside Israel earlier this year.

Netanyahu, staying in a Tel Aviv hotel awaiting the final results, had pledged to withdraw some of the offers made by Peres and his predecessor Rabin in an effort to secure the elusive Israeli-Arab peace.

The right-wing leader ruled out returning the occupied Golan Heights, considered a pre-condition for a peace treaty with Syria, and pledged uncompromising positions in talks with Palestinians that are supposed to reach a final settlement of their half-century struggle.

Netanyahu ally Rafael Eitan, army chief when hundreds of Palestinians were killed in two refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, said every clause in the Oslo accords should be reopened.

Netanyahu will need to forge a coalition with Jewish religious and Russian-based parties who fared well in a parallel election for parliament at the expense of Labor and Likud.

Political analysts said he should easily muster the 61 seats needed in the 120-member Knesset, even though Likud dropped from 40 to a projected 31 seats.

The new voting system, which allowed Israelis to choose their prime minister directly for the first time, favored the fringe parties whose influence it was ironically intended to reduce. Under the old system Peres would have likely been asked to form a coalition, since Labor is still the biggest party in parliament with a forecast 34 seats.

Netanyahu was expected to approach the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, the National Religious Party, and a new party of immigrants from the former Soviet Union headed by former dissident Natan Sharansky.