The first unofficial results are not expected until sometime Thursday morning EDT. If the election remains very close, the final results may not be available for several days, as absentee ballots are counted. At the Labor party headquarters Wednesday night, Peres' supporters sounded optimistic, but were careful not to declare victory based on the exit polling data. At Likud headquarters, workers were subdued, but had not given up hope. Netanyahu's supporters are counting on the momentum he gained in the final week of campaigning, rising by as much as seven percentage points in some polls. Exit polling also led Israeli television station Channel 1 to predict significant losses for both the Likud and Labor in Israel's parliament, the 120-seat Knesset. The station estimated that Labor would hold 37 of its 44 seats, while it predicted that Likud would retain 31 of its present 40 seats, with other factions picking up the losses. -->
JERUSALEM: As Israelis cast their ballots in the nation's most important election in decades, local exit polls showed Prime Minister Shimon Peres with the narrowest of leads over Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The polls, conducted by Israeli television stations, showed Peres leading by just one-to-four percent, which means the outcome cannot yet be predicted. At stake is Israel's course toward peace, pursued aggressively by both Peres and his Labor Party predecessor, Yitzak Rabin, who was assassinated last November by right-wing rabbinical student Yigal Amir. Netanyahu has come grudgingly to accept the accords granting the Palestinian Authority limited self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank, but he opposes Palestinian statehood and trading occupied land for peace with Israel's neighbors. During his campaign for the office of Prime Minister, he has moderated his hard line on Yasser Arafat, saying recently that he would negotiate with the Palestinian leader. Despite the high stakes, the campaign has been run in an uncharacteristically restrained manner for the usually rough and tumble world of Israeli politics. "It has been an extraordinarily calm day," says TIME's Jerusalem Bureau Chief Lisa Beyer. "After Rabin's assassination, the Israeli people have become rather wary of extremism."