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CAMPAIGN SOMETIMES TAKES LOW ROAD - BUT NOT THE GUTTER

A government campaign ad questions Benjamin Netanyahu's ability to keep cool under fire. The opposition campaign paints Prime Minister Shimon Peres as a clown.

But despite some low blows, it has been a subdued campaign for prime minister in Israel - at least compared to prior elections, typified by allegations of bastard births and of politicians frolicking with call girls.Israelis have been wary of a return to mudslinging since a Jewish extremist opposed to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's peace policies assassinated him on Nov. 4. Many on the left - and even a few on the right - blamed excessive right-wing rhetoric for contributing to the atmosphere that led to the murder.

Still, the relatively civilized campaign is surprising considering the high stakes of Wednesday's vote, which is a referendum on Peres' peace policies. Peres promotes trading land for peace with the Arabs, but Netanyahu opposes any further territorial concessions.

In a TV ad for Peres last week, Foreign Minister Ehud Barak said that while Netanyahu had been a good army captain he lacked the stuff to run the country.

"Our unique security and political situation requires a leader with open eyes and nerves of steel," said the former army chief-of-staff. "Not a gimmick, not an image - but our life."

His meaning was clear: Peres has the guts for the job. Netanyahu, perceived by many as overly reliant on the American-style sound bite, does not.

Barak commanded Netanyahu during the 1970s in Israel's elite commando unit, which must have sharpened the ad's sting for Netanyahu. The Jerusalem Post - a newspaper closely allied with Netanyahu - said in an editorial that Barak had his "own disastrous failures on the battlefield."

In the past, Peres has been called a liar, a cheat and even the bastard son of a Jewish father and an Arab mother. In the 1992 campaign, Peres' Labor Party retaliated by spreading unsubstantiated tales of Likud politicians cavorting with prostitutes.

But this campaign, Netanyahu has shied away from such outright vilification, anxious to shed his Likud Party's reputation as rabble rousers. Instead, he brought in American adviser Arthur Finkelstein and borrowed from the American style of negative campaigning.

His ads hammer home a single, emotional issue.

"Peres will divide Jerusalem," Likud ads say, referring to allegations that Peres has secretly agreed to Palestinian demands for a capital in the eastern part of the city. Israel claims the entire city as its capital.

Another Likud tactic borrows from 1968 Democrat party ads that featured hysterical laughter over an advertisement declaring "Spiro Agnew for Vice President."