JERUSALEM (AP) _ Less than a month before Israel's election, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday accused Prime Minister Shimon Peres of exploiting his close relations with President Clinton and several Arab leaders to improve his chances for re-election.

Netanyahu is Peres' only challenger in the May 29 vote for prime minister.

``With all due respect, I want to say to Mr. Peres ... that foreigners do not decide the outcome of the Israeli elections, not the American government, the king of Morocco or Yasser Arafat,'' Netanyahu told parliament.

The criticism came after Peres wrapped up a three-day U.S. visit during which he and Clinton signed a defense pact and agreed to cooperate in fighting terrorism.

Netanyahu's Likud Party, which lost to Peres' Labor Party in 1992 after 15 years in power, had lagged in polls since the November assassination of Peres' predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin. The party gained ground after four suicide attacks by Muslim militants killed 59 victims in Israel.

Peres, returning from Washington, dismissed the accusation.

``Relations between the United States and Israel have reached a new peak,'' he told reporters Wednesday night at Israel's Ben-Gurion airport. ``I do not think there is another country which enjoys such friendship or understanding as Israel does from Washington.''

Peres said it took the opposition three years to understand Israel's peace process with the Palestinians and ``I believe that in three years the opposition will also understand this.''

Peres met with Clinton twice. Both leaders addressed a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Netanyahu derided Peres' trip to Washington as a ploy to win votes.

``I can't find an example of any previous Israeli government whose prime minister, on the eve of elections, made a cynical attempt to use relations between Israel and the United States as a party advertisement,'' Netanyahu said.

He was careful, however, not to criticize Clinton directly and promised that a Likud government would have excellent U.S. relations ``regardless of who was president of the United States.''

Some Israeli commentators Wednesday appeared to agree with Likud's claim that Clinton favored Peres over Netanyahu.

Columnist Nahum Barnea of the daily Yediot Ahronot wrote of the ``umbrella Clinton opened over Peres' election campaign.''

Netanyahu has said he would slow down U.S.-backed peacemaking with the Arabs and make fewer concessions than Peres.

At a joint press conference Tuesday in Washington, Clinton dismissed suggestions he had invited Peres to bolster the Israeli leader's standing in the polls.