Prime Minister Shimon Peres and right-wing challenger Benjamin Netanyahu were virtually tied in early results in a national election Wednesday that will determine the course of Israel's peace negotiations with its Arab neighbors.
Preliminary results in the country's first direct vote for a prime minister, based on 51.9% of the votes, showed Peres leading by 50.7% to 49.2% for Netanyahu, but those returns were mainly from Tel Aviv and other traditional strongholds of Peres' Labor Party.
Television exit polls, however, gave contradictory results. Both channels projected Netanyahu would win by a margin of about 2%.
The seesawing projections alternately sent supporters in each party into fits of jubilation and bouts of nervousness.
Officials said that with such a close race, final results could be delayed for several days.
With the first returns in favor of Peres, young Labor activists, the core of Peres' hard-fought campaign, erupted in cheers, waved flags and olive branches and, using the rival candidate's nickname, chanted, "Bibi's had it!" One banner read, "Bye, bye Bibi."
Netanyahu supporters started out glum, but soon were dancing on chairs and whooping with delight.
No one expects the final results to be anything but a cliffhanger in this deeply divided country.
For Peres, even a narrow win would be a tremendous victory.
The 73-year-old Nobel laureate has led his party to defeat in four previous elections. A triumph not only would give Peres the personal seal of approval he has long sought, but it would also amount to a vote of confidence on his policy of trading land for peace with the Palestinians and possibly neighboring Syria.
Victory for Netanyahu would be a stunning upset by the 46-year-old politician, who has never held an executive office. It probably would bring a halt or a major transformation to the peace process with the Palestinians that has been going on since 1993.
Neither candidate claimed victory, but some supporters did.
"A win is a win," Yossi Beilin, one of Peres' closest confidants and a member of his Cabinet, said early in the evening. "We will continue the peace process."
Netanyahu urged his supporters to be patient.
"The night is long. . . . Don't lose hope," Netanyahu said to cheers. "Whatever happens, it is clear that a large part of this nation supports our way."
Netanyahu has branded the government's peacemaking with the Palestinians a failure and insisted that he could achieve peace without further territorial concessions.
He played on Israeli fears of terrorism, while Peres put forth what he termed a vision of hope.
It will be up to the victor to conduct final negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the next three years to determine the fundamental questions of Israel's borders, control over Jerusalem, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian statehood.
Negotiations with the Palestinians are to be completed in 1999 under the breakthrough peace agreement that Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed with Arafat in Washington in 1993.
Rabin was slain Nov. 4 by right-wing Jewish law student Yigal Amir, who opposed the agreement.
Many Israelis visited Rabin's grave on election day, and his widow, Leah, disturbed by the apparent closeness of the vote, urged people to continue his legacy.
"I don't understand how half of this nation does not understand that there is only one way and none other, that we are on the road to peace," she told Channel 2 TV. "This embarrasses me."
Earlier, she had tearfully described voting for the first time without Rabin at her side. And she termed it "an unprecedented scandal" that Amir, who is in prison, was allowed to cast a ballot.
Voting took place without any major problems, but the legacy of violence was felt when Peres was forced to increase his security and change his schedule because of reported threats from Jewish extremists.
As early results showed Peres in the lead, Rabin's longtime friend and confidant Eitan Haber said: "Up on Mt. Herzl, surrounded by thousands of his soldiers, Yitzhak Rabin lies in darkness. He was very stingy with smiles. He had only half a smile. But I am confident he is smiling now."
The Likud Party, which had closed its headquarters when it looked as if Netanyahu might lose, reopened it at 2 a.m. when a Netanyahu victory suddenly appeared possible.
In Washington, President Clinton kept a vigil in the White House, receiving a stream of partial election results relayed from the U.S. Embassy in Israel through National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.
White House officials were visibly crestfallen when the results began to turn against Peres, whom Clinton virtually endorsed as his preferred partner in the Middle East peace process.
A spokesman said Clinton planned to telephone the winner of the election as soon as the result was clear.
Whatever the outcome of the prime minister's race, both Labor and Likud took heavy losses in parliament, where the religious parties were the big winners with an unprecedented 22 seats in the Knesset, up from 16.
Exit polls showed Labor winning 35 seats, compared to 44 in the last parliament, and the Likud coalition with 31, down from 40. The leftist Meretz Party lost two of its seats, keeping 10.
Meanwhile, Russians, Arab-Israelis and the centrist Third Way parties won surprising backing.
Former Russian dissident Natan Sharansky's new immigrant party, Yisrael Ba-Aliya, took seven seats, and the two predominantly Arab parties increased their seats from five to seven.
The prime minister-elect has 45 days to present a government to the Knesset for approval.
Given the new makeup of the Knesset, even if Peres wins he will no longer be able to form a government with only left-of-center parties--Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties.
But there was little doubt that Peres or Netanyahu would be able to form a government with minority parties.
The Central Elections Committee announced that 79.7% of the 3.9 million registered voters turned out to cast ballots on the sunny election day--up from about 77.4% in 1992, when Rabin was voted into office to end 15 years of Likud rule.
The turnout of Arab-Israeli voters also rose significantly to 77%, from 68% in 1992.
The overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs is believed to have voted for Peres, despite anger over his recent military offensive in Lebanon and a three-month closure on the Palestinian territories after bus bombings earlier this year. Arab leaders withheld their endorsements until the last minute.
The high Arab turnout drew thanks from Labor Party leaders and charges from the right-wing opposition that Netanyahu had the majority of Jewish support in the election--implying that Peres' Arab support would make any victory of his illegitimate.
"There is no doubt that Labor's activity in the Arab sector was aimed at overcoming Shimon Peres' problems," Likud campaign chief Tsahi Hanegbi said.
Finance Minister Avraham Shohat responded that "there is one state of Israel with Jewish, Arab, Druze, Christian citizens and they all have the right to vote, and they all voted."
Israel has about 800,000 Arab citizens, and 440,000 of them were registered to vote. To win their support, Peres said he would consider appointing the Jewish state's first Arab minister.
Religious voters were believed to be critical for a Netanyahu victory. Newspapers on election day carried front-page photographs of the Likud candidate kissing the Western Wall on one of his final campaign stops. There are about 200,000 registered voters in the ultra-Orthodox community, and several of their leading rabbis endorsed Netanyahu in the last days of the campaign.
Fearing terrorist attacks, Israeli troops sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip on election day, and about 25,000 soldiers and police were deployed across the country to protect voters.
Each of the country's approximately 6,700 polling places had security forces standing guard at the entrance against Islamic and Jewish extremists.
Although a national holiday had been declared, city streets were bustling with activists from Labor, Likud and many of the 19 other parties handing out hats, campaign leaflets and cold drinks, and hanging banners and driving voters to the polls.
Under the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Israel already has withdrawn its troops from the Gaza Strip and West Bank cities, except for Hebron, that it occupied for almost 28 years. It also pulled out of about 400 West Bank villages but retained the right to return.
Peres' negotiators have said that in a final agreement they would seek the annexation of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank but would consider giving Palestinians control over more of the land that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.
They also have said that Palestinian statehood is a possibility--a notion flatly rejected by Netanyahu.
During the campaign, Netanyahu insisted that Peres would give up East Jerusalem in final negotiations, and that he would not.
Peres denied that he would give up East Jerusalem, and he said the city reunited in 1967 would never again be divided.
Netanyahu's view in general is that Arabs understand only strength and that Israel already has made too many concessions to the Palestinians.
In negotiations with Syria, which Peres wants to resume, he has all but conceded that he would return the Golan Heights in exchange for a permanent and comprehensive peace deal.
Aware of the public's fears of giving up more land for an uncertain peace, Peres vowed during the campaign that he would hold referendums on final agreement with the Palestinians and the Syrians.
Times staff writers John Daniszewski and Rebecca Trounson in Jerusalem and Doyle McManus in Washington, and researcher Batsheva Sobelman in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.