Profiles of the major contenders for Israel's top job (as of mid-January) follow:

Binyamin NeTanyahu -- Likud, centre-right

Smooth, media-savvy and exasperating to his political foes, Binyamin Netanyahu, 49, has been Likud leader since 1991 and prime minister since 1996. Elected by a tiny majority, he was compelled to build a fragile coalition of eight right-wing, centre-right and religious parties. Netanyahu undertook to honour the Oslo Accords negotiated by the previous Labour administration, while promising to minimise the risks it posed to Israel. Thus he oversaw the 1997 hand-over of 80 per cent of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, then all but froze further implementation of Oslo for more than a year, citing PA non-compliance and continuing violence.

But if he hoped to win broad support for this approach, Netanyahu was to be disappointed. When he moved ahead on Oslo, he shed support on the right; when he stalled, he lost coalition "moderates". The Oslo deadlock eventually broke in October 1998 with the Wye River Memorandum, aimed at pushing the Oslo process towards its destination of a "final status" settlement. But Israel's right-wing saw Wye as a "sell-out" to the Palestinians, and Netanyahu finally lost his tiny majority in December.

Chances: Netanyahu says he offers the best chance Israel has to obtain "peace with security". Defections in the Likud have weakened him, but he commands considerable support among traditional Likud voters, and has a good chance of winning in a second round run-off.

Ehud Barak -- Labour, centre-left

Former paratroop commando and army chief of staff, Ehud Barak, 56, sees himself as the natural successor to the late Yitzhak Rabin as the leader who can make peace with the Arabs, while not sacrificing security in the process. Barak led Israeli commandos in some the most daring operations in the country's troubled history (on one operation to liberate a hijacked airliner, his unit members included Netanyahu).

He was appointed chief of staff in 1991, but his record was marred somewhat by a number of training mishaps, including one in 1992 which resulted in the deaths of five soldiers (and almost killed Barak and his then deputy, Shahak, too). Upon leaving the army he was appointed Interior Minister in July 1995, and--after Shimon Peres lost the election to Netanyahu in 1996, he was elected Labour leader.

Barak recently described himself as a "man of action" (The Associated Press, Dec 22, 1998). Since hiring expensive American spin doctors, including Bill Clinton advisor James Carville, his style has become noticeably more combative. Barak's more than just a fighter though. He has a master's degree in systems analysis from Stanford, is a classical pianist and an expert in Hebrew literature.

Chances: Barak support has been undercut by Amnon Lipkin-Shahak's challenge from the centre. His chances of making the second round depend on whether Shahak woos more voters away from Barak or from Netanyahu.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak -- centre

A career soldier, 54-year-old Amnon Lipkin-Shahak won Israel's Medal of Valour in 1968 and again in 1973 for his role in a commando raid on the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Beirut. He later commanded a paratroop battalion and a tank division. He was appointed chief of military intelligence (1986), deputy chief of staff (1991), and chief of staff (1995-1997). In 1990 he fought--and won--a battle against leukaemia.

While deputy chief of staff, Shahak was Israel's main negotiator with the Palestinians over the army's withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, earning the admiration of his Arab interlocutors. He was also involved in peace talks with Syrian military leaders.

After Shahak left the army in December 1998, Barak tried to woo him into Labour, but the two couldn't agree over who should head the party list. The Jerusalem Report wrote in 1995 that Shahak was "convinced peace is only possible if the army is ready for war".

Chances: Opinion polls put Shahak comfortably ahead of both Barak and Netanyahu--presumably because people holding a wide range of views believe he shares them. Thus his figures are likely to drop as he is forced to clarify his policy positions as the campaign continues.

Ze'ev Begin -- Herut, right

A professional and passionate geologist, Ze'ev ("Benny") Begin, 55, is the only son of Likud founder and former premier Menachem Begin, and was a boyhood friend of Uzi Landau. He has been a Knesset member since November 1988, and in 1993 was soundly beaten by Netanyahu in the bid to succeed Yitzhak Shamir as party leader.

Begin held the Science portfolio in the Netanyahu cabinet until he resigned in early 1997 to protest the ceding of most of Hebron to the Palestinians. In December he announced he was leaving the Likud back-benches and standing for prime minister as the head of a new nationalist faction--a move which prompted criticism from some right-wingers who said it would split the nationalist vote and hand victory to the left.

Begin is highly respected among his peers as an honest, modest and principled politician. He has been described as "a thinking right-winger deeply committed to liberal principles".

Chances: Begin has conceded that he stands little chance of being elected, and is expected to throw his weight behind Netanyahu in a second round of elections.

Dan Meridor -- centre

Dan Meridor, 51, is the son of the late Eliyahu Meridor, a colleague of Menachem Begin, Jerusalem commander in the Irgun Jewish underground and Herut Party lawmaker. The young Meridor rose to the rank of captain in the army tank corps, and fought in Sinai during the Six Day War and on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. Later he studied law and joined his father's legal firm.

After unsuccessfully standing for the Knesset in 1977, he was appointed cabinet secretary by then Prime Minister Begin. In 1984 he was elected to the Knesset as a Likud representative, and was immediately appointed justice minister. After a period in the opposition, he became finance minister in 1996.

Relations with Netanyahu grew increasingly acrimonious, however, and Meridor resigned in June 1997, saying he had lost all confidence in the prime minister. Even then, Meridor said he doubted whether he would remain in the Likud "if Netanyahu were its candidate for prime minister again. If I had confidence in him and if I supported him, then I would still be serving in his government today," he said the day he resigned. He was as good as his word, leaving the Likud when early elections were called at the end of 1998.

Chances: Meridor has impeccable political credentials, a reputation to boot, and is popular in what has been called "middle Israel". He could do well, especially if teamed up with Shahak in a party that would win support from moderate Likud voters and the more conservative Labour voters alike.

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