The gnawing debate inside Israel's peace camp about whether arch-dove Shimon Peres should replace Ehud Barak as the Labor party's candidate for prime minister seemed less relevant on Friday, as the latest polls showed Likud chairman Ariel Sharon now defeating either one come February 6.
In recent weeks, polls have shown caretaker Prime Minister Barak doing much worse than Cabinet minister Peres against the hawkish Sharon, thus leading to popular calls on the Left for Barak to defer to his elder party rival. But according to a series of "Friday polls" published today, Sharon has overtaken both figures and looks ever more certain to win the premiership, a remarkable feat for the oft-maligned former IDF general.
A JERUSALEM POST poll conducted this week by the Smith Institute found Sharon leading Peres for the first time, 42% to 39%. A Gallup poll for MA'ARIV also showed Sharon defeating Peres for the first time, 45% to 44%, while a Dahaf Institute poll for YEDIOT AHARONOT had Peres defeating Sharon by the same margin.
Against Barak, the POST survey showed Sharon still enjoying a comfortable lead of 47% to 29%. However, according to the Gallup poll, Sharon has actually increased his lead over Barak, improving to a 51% to 31% lead.
Barak reacted to the results by reiterating that he does not intend to quit the race and saying that he does not expect to start bridging the gap against Sharon until the last five days before the February 6 election. Observers interpreted the remark as aimed at Peres, who reportedly has offered to temporarily leave the country in a rift with Barak. He referred to the prime minister yesterday as the Left's "representative" but not as its leader, and refuses to stamp out a grass-roots movement to draft him. Labor party leaders have also indicated that, polls notwithstanding, the party simply does not have enough money to create another campaign for a new candidate.
The Sharon campaign was obviously buoyed by the poll results, with Likud MK Meir Sheetrit expressing hope the conflict between Barak and Peres would continue until election day. Sheetrit said the results indicate that Barak's radio and TV ads this week, which his campaign had counted on to bridge the gap with Sharon, was evidently unsuccessful.
In the other major development in the campaign by week's end, Barak and Peres both strongly criticized Sharon's diplomatic plan for concluding a peace agreement with the Palestinians, which was featured yesterday in HA'ARETZ.
The Sharon plan calls for reaching a long-term interim "non-belligerency" accord without any specific deadlines, but with a mutually agreed-upon set of expectations. Sharon has said the plan would allow Israel to work in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority toward the establishment of a Palestinian entity on 42% of Judea/Samaria. According to the plan, all Jewish settlements would be kept under Israeli rule, but no new ones would be established. Jerusalem would remain united, and Israel would retain full control of its eastern and western security zones, the routes connecting the Jordan Valley with the coastal plan, and its vital underground aquifers. Only after the Palestinians agree to these points would Israel gradually ease security measures and consider concessions on both sides.
Labor leaders claimed there would be no Arab partner for such a plan. "I don't believe it is possible to make peace without the Arabs," Peres said mockingly. Meanwhile, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Sharon proposals a "recipe for disaster, a recipe for war."
In other developments, Barak finally came out strongly against a national unity government after the elections. And in his newest TV commercials, he spoke repeatedly of how he "hates" to sit down in peace talks with PLO chief Yasser Arafat, but argued it is justified by the need to bring a peace settlement as soon as possible. "No one has to tell me who Arafat is," asserted Barak. "This is a divorce, not a love story. But if we wait another 10 years, there will just be more bloodshed and then the same tough questions."
Barak also committed several major missteps. He likely has ticked off Russian immigrant voters by attacking remarks made by the wife of Yisrael B'Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky at the massive Jerusalem rally last week. In a campaign message carried in local Russian-language newspapers, Barak accused Avital Sharansky of calling on participants at the rally "to go to war for Jerusalem." A Barak campaign spokeswoman said Avital's operative statement about "war" comes from a Hebrew press report that quoted her as saying "Jerusalem has fought for us immigrants. Today we will fight for Jerusalem."
Natan Sharansky shot back, "My wife described the Jewish people's love for Jerusalem wonderfully in the rally, and I was very proud... It is a revelation to me that her words of love for Jerusalem can be interpreted as a call for war. This shows that the will to win can make people use language as [George] Orwell did: peace is war, love is hate," he said. "Russian immigrants cannot be brainwashed by such primitive means."
Finally, former chief of General Staff Dan Shomron yesterday accused Barak's campaign of twisting the history of the famous Entebbe rescue operation to give undue credit to Barak. In an election commercial Tuesday night, Peres ascribed to Barak the success of the 1976 rescue of 98 hostages on an Air France airliner hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda. Peres recalled with self-described "excitement" Barak, coming to him as defense minister at the time with a daring plan for rescuing the Israeli and Jewish hostages held by Palestinian and West German terrorists.
"The truth is something else," Shomron, the commander of the operation, told ISRAEL RADIO. "The plan that Ehud presented, it became clear in a short time, was an irrelevant plan." Barak's plan was dropped and Shomron's was adopted, historians confirmed. Shomron accused the Barak campaign of deliberately not mentioning that Barak was not at Entebbe, where the ground forces were led by Yonatan Netanyahu, elder brother of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "I saw this as an attempt to fit history to the immediate needs of the election broadcasts," Shomron said. Peres apologized to Shomron and attempted to clarify his version of the Entebbe operation.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.