With a wide lead in the polls, Likud chairman Ariel Sharon confidently launched his official campaign for prime minister on Wednesday night at a packed party gathering in Jerusalem's largest auditorium.
As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's popularity remains at an all-time low, Sharon looked ready to claim victory in the upcoming February 6 election. He enjoys strong internal Likud support and is picking up votes from centrists opposed to Barak's generous concessions to the Palestinians even while the violent intifada continues.
But the threat of Cabinet minister Shimon Peres replacing Barak as the Labor party candidate continues to cast a shadow over what may otherwise be certain victory for Sharon. A number of "Friday polls" consistently showed today that Sharon would whip Barak by 20 points, while Peres and Sharon are in a virtual dead heat. Thus, Sharon is warning his colleagues that nothing is sewn up yet and they should not get complacent.
In his address, Sharon appealed to the frustration experienced by many Israelis who feel deprived of leadership and security under the Barak government. He scolded Barak for violating his promise not to negotiate under fire. However, Sharon explained his own approach does not come without conciliation. "There is no true peace without concessions," he said. "We will achieve peace based on compromise, but we will look out for our own interests and make sure the other side keeps its commitments."
Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu assured the crowd, "I came here tonight to say one thing: I support Ariel Sharon for prime minister and I call on everyone in the Likud to support Sharon."
Sharon did not reveal any tactical plans for confronting the present violence, but reiterated that he would attempt to form a national unity government, stressing that no Israeli is "against" peace, least of all himself.
But MK Livnat clarified the campaign motto, "Only Sharon Can Bring Peace" by explaining the basic tenets of Sharon's strategy for the formation of a peace plan. "First of all, there will be absolutely no negotiations while the violence is raging. Then, once personal security is restored, we will demand that the Palestinians fulfill all their previous obligations - collecting illegal weapons, returning terrorists to jail, etc. We can then return to the talks from a position of strength, not from weakness."
In a recent interview with the ultra-Orthodox KFAR HABAD magazine, Sharon declared that concessions alone cannot bring peace. He made clear that if he becomes prime minister, "all the YESHA settlements will remain in place, period," because they are all located in zones vital to Israel's security. When asked what he meant by saying certain "painful concessions" were necessary for peace, Sharon said he referred to the surrender of cities to the Palestinians that he would not re-conquer, such as Hebron, Nablus (biblical Shechem) and Jericho. "I don't know of any nation that has given up on such precious historical national assets," he said.
Meanwhile, calls for Barak's resignation in deference to Peres continued to mount this week. According to a poll conducted by the Smith Institute released today, Sharon is leading Barak by 20 percentage points in the race for the premiership, but would lose by two percentage points if Peres took over as the Labor candidate.
Results of a poll published by MA'ARIV today concur, showing Sharon 19 points ahead of Barak, but trailing Peres by two points.
The Israeli media reported today that senior Labor figures are urging Barak to withdraw from the race if he has not gained ground in the polls by the end of next week. Peres supporters demonstrated at various locations across the country today, gathering signatures of people in favor of replacing Barak with Peres. They intend to present their petition to Barak on Sunday.
Barak's advisers counter such moves by saying that the race is far from over, noting that internal polls show "positive trends," due partly to Barak's recent cooperation with Peres. If these trends continue, say Barak's advisers, he will be able to overtake Sharon by election day.
Returning from a trip to India yesterday, Peres rallied behind this campaign and strongly denied that he will eventually replace Barak. In a joint meeting for the press, Peres and Barak said they would "march together to Barak's victory."
"Barak is the candidate who was chosen and the candidate who will lead us to victory," Peres said. "All the members of the party should be helping him out. There is no other option."
Barak said that he and Peres would persuade people to "vote for our path, the path of peace, and not the other path, which provides no answers." At the start of this week, Barak insisted, "There is nothing in the world that would make me quit the race."
Speaking to ARUTZ-7, Likud MK Limor Livnat said that her party is ready for a last-minute switch to Peres, and is preparing television and radio ads focusing on his role in the Olso accords.
In another positive turn for Sharon, Shas chairman Eli Yishai said Thursday that even if Peres becomes a candidate, his party will continue to support Sharon. Yishai denied statements made by Shas MKs this week that the party would re-consider its previous endorsement of Sharon if Peres enters the race.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.