Israel's 2.25 million voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new Parliament and if public-opinion polls are accurate, it will be the closest general election in the country's 29-year history.
The polls show the Labor alignment, which has ruled Israel at the head of one coalition or another since the nation's birth, ahead with about 30 per cent of the vote. The major opposition party, the right-of-center Likud, is in second place according to the polls, with slightly less than 30 per cent of the vote.
In the last weeks of the campaign, Labor has been steadily losing support while Likud has been gaining in an 11th-hour surge. With approximately 17 per cent of the voters still undecuded, however, political pundits are reluctant to predict the results. Traditionally, the majority of Israel's undecided voters vote for Labor by force of tradition.
In this election, it is clear that the old politics that ruled Israel even before independence is finally breaking up and that new patterns, blocks and alliances are forming. The days when Labor could county on a clear plurality, if not a majority, are gone, and the prognosis is for a long bargaining period of several weeks while the winner in tomorrow's election tries to form a coalition government.
In such a close election, the balance of power will go to the smaller parties - principally the new reform party, the Democratic movement for Change led by archaeologist Yigael Yadin polls give it about 11 per cent of the vote.
Unless the two major parties try to form a national unity coalition, however, no two parties are likely to get enough parliamentary seats to form a coalition, leaving some of the still smaller parties, such as the religious parties with approximately 6 per cent of the vote, a role to play in the formation of the government.
Israel's 22 political parties wound up their election campaigns today, the highlight being last night's television debate between Labor's candidate for prime minister, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, and Menachem Begin of Likud.
Begin stressed his party's opposition to any territorial concessions on the occupied West Bank of Jordan and tried to convince his audience that Peres is a hawk. Peres, however, said that the Labor Party's willingness to make territorial concessions for peace at least offers "a guarantee to opening peace negotiations."
It was the first time that Israel had tried an American-style television debate and, in a campaign that has been marked by its lack of vote-grabbing issues, the debate also was listless. Neither man came out to clear winner. When asked how an undecided voter might react to the debate, one of Israel's better-known political analysts said, "He would turn off the television set."
Among issues, inflation, now running at nearly 40 per cent, headed the list. Public-opinion polls also showed that corruption in high places and labor strikes concerned voters. Such a trend will hurt the ruling Labor alignment - not only because it has presided over a long period of inflation and economic stagnation but also because many of its leaders have been involved in financial scandals.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned from the Labor Party leadership in April because his wife had lied about an illegal joint bank account in Washington, but the substitution of Peres at the top of the list appeared to stop desertions from Labor that might otherwise have increased.
Israel's eigth Parliament held its final-session today, with Likud trying a last-minute political gambit by demanding a debate on the government's alleged use of army computers to propagandize Israeli soldiers into voting Labor. The motion was sent to a committee that will never meet because the eigth Parliament dies when the ninth is elected on Tuesday.