JERUSALEM — PRIME Minister Shimon Peres faces a tough battle with his right-wing rival, Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, for Israel's top job in May 29 general elections.
Mr. Netanyahu was not a serious contender in the election moved up to May by Mr. Peres only weeks before Islamic extremists set off four bombs, beginning Feb. 25, that claimed 62 lives in Israel.
Since the bombs, however, opinion polls indicate that Peres, architect of the peace plan with the Palestinians, is running neck and neck with Netanyahu. One poll last week even put the Likud leader a few points ahead of Peres.
In the past week, Netanyahu struck agreements with two right-wing groups - the Gesher Party and the smaller Tzomet party - to run a right-wing alliance in the upcoming elections.
The deals have projected Netanyahu as a leader building right-wing unity. "Now it's going to be a straight race between two candidates," says Peter Medding, a political scientist at Hebrew University.
Netanyahu now appears well-placed to challenge Peres in the first direct elections for an Israeli prime minister. Voters will be able to vote separately for the party and leader of their choice.
Israelis still pro-peace
But pollsters say that despite the shift away from Peres, Israelis have maintained confidence in the peace process, and if calm persists in the next few weeks, many Israelis will shift back toward Peres.
"Our surveys indicate that the Israeli public is more mature and sophisticated in its understanding of the peace process," says Tamar Hermann, director of Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research. "Most Israelis realize that the continuation of the peace talks is the best option right now."
The center's latest survey conducted after the first two bombs indicated an increase in support for Netanyahu, but it was not matched by a corresponding drop in support for the peace process as might have been expected.
"Israelis have come to expect a certain level of terror accompanying the peace process," Mrs. Hermann says. "The support for the peace process is rooted in a deeper understanding of what peace is about."
This shift suggests that it will take more than terrorism to persuade Israelis to abandon the peace process, painful as it is, in favor of a party that has not been in favor of the 1993 land-for-peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Likud says it will honor the agreements already entered into with the Palestinians, but opposes the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. It also opposes the handing-over of the Golan Heights as part of a settlement with Syria.
"[Netanyahu] has distanced himself from the extreme elements of the right and has moved into the political center without having a substantive policy himself," Mr. Medding says. "He is playing a waiting game and keeping his powder dry. The stark reality in Israeli politics is that the opposition has much to gain from terrorist attacks."
Some analysts say that this kind of stance could count against Netanyahu in winning over an electorate that has accepted the peace process.
"I think the public have bought into the very pragmatic notion of peace propagated by [the late Yitzhak] Rabin and Peres, which does mean that terrorism will disappear and that the benefits are more long-term," says Michael Keren, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University.
"I think the Israeli electorate has matured to the point where voting is conducted not so much on gut reaction but on a deeper understanding of the forces at work," says Professor Keren, author of a book that analyzes Peres's first term as prime minister from 1984-86.
Keren says that it is significant that both Peres and Netanyahu refrained from resorting to populist responses to the recent crisis and responded, instead, with dignity and political appropriateness.
Netanyahu, one of the youngest-ever leaders of a major political party in Israel with a polished television persona, responded to the crisis with uncharacteristic dignity, pledging his support for the Labor-led government in fighting terror and avoiding obvious exploitation of the tragedy.
"Netanyahu has won more popularity among the voters by acting in a more statesmanlike way than he did in past terrorist attacks when he tried to make political capital," said Keren, adding that he did not think this new approach would be enough to win him the election.
Peres faced the first major test of his vision of a new Middle East based on cooperation and accommodation rather than rigid separation of Palestinians and Israelis. But because he sealed off the West Bank and Gaza and has kept Palestinian workers out of Israel in response to the bombings, it appeared that he was acting in way that did not accord with his vision. "What we have seen recently is Peres playing the role of Rabin ... trying to be 'Mr. Security.' I think he is trying to defuse the criticism and gain time for implementing his vision," Keren says. "I think his basic notion is still one of cooperation and not separation."