Peres, Netanyahu play it safe during only direct encounter

JERUSALEM — Officials from both the Labor and Likud camps claimed victory in Sunday night's debate between Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

But political analysts said the debate had a negligible effect on the centrist segment of the Israeli electorate that still remained undecided over whom to back in the race for prime minister.

Meanwhile, one day after the debate, Netanyahu picked up what could prove to be critical support from leaders of the ultra-religious community, which makes up about 8 percent of the electorate.

Conflicting opinion polls published in the Israeli media Monday underscored the closeness of the race.

A survey in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv gave Peres a 4 percent lead over Netanyahu.

But Yediot Achronot published a different poll, giving Netanyahu the same edge over his Labor rival.

During the 30-minute televised debate, the candidates focused on the two issues that dominated the campaign: peace and security.

Providing few surprises, both candidates stuck to the political themes they have voiced throughout the campaign.

Peres stressed his political experience and promised to pursue the peace process begun by his predecessor, the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Netanyahu, 46, hammered at what he said was Peres' failure to ensure the personal security of Israelis.

The telegenic Netanyahu directly addressed Peres throughout the debate, charging him with "bringing our security to an unprecedented low."

"Our children are afraid to get on a bus," Netanyahu said, referring to the series of Hamas suicide bombings in late February and early March that killed 59 innocent people and wounded some 220 others.

Peres in turn charged the Likud with running a campaign that tried to "scare people, to sow fear."

The prime minister, who spoke in his usual measured tone, did his best to ignore Netanyahu throughout the debate.

But in his opening statement he responded to Likud campaign charges that he planned to divide Jerusalem in a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"We united Jerusalem, and it will remain united," he said.

The two candidates fielded questions from journalist Dan Margalit, who served as moderator.

But regardless of the questions posed, the candidates always seemed to return to their main themes.

Margalit, for instance, brought up a 1993 scandal in which Netanyahu admitted on television to cheating on his wife.

"It was a mistake," Netanyahu said, then added: "But the pain I caused my family was nothing like the pain Mr. Peres' policies are causing the whole nation."

When the 72-year-old Peres was asked whether his age could hamper his ability to perform as prime minister, Peres said his health was good, then added: "There are younger people, with old ideas."

Political analysts said that while the debate provided some interesting viewing, no real political gain was achieved by either party.

"Both candidates played it safe," said Menahem Hoffnung, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "They tried most not to make mistakes.

"Netanyahu focused more on why people should not vote for Peres, than on why they should vote for him. He also was not specific about his own programs.

"Shimon Peres also failed to give real answers to questions on his future policy regarding the Palestinian autonomy, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem."

Meanwhile, ultra-religious spiritual leader Rabbi Eliezer Schach reportedly summoned representatives of the Degel HaTorah Party and announced his decision to back Netanyahu.

Other leading rabbis published a ruling Monday calling on their followers to prefer the candidate "whose party was closer to fulfilling the religious spirit and tradition of Israel."

Hours after the ruling was issued, ultra-religious Jews lined a major intersection on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway with banners saying, "Netanyahu is Good for the Jews."

Labor Party legislators asked election officials to order the banners removed, charging that the slogan was racist and inflammatory.