In the final days of the snap Israeli election for prime minister, incumbent Ehud Barak courted the Arab and Russian immigrant blocs, but had little chance of catching the surging Likud candidate Ariel Sharon, especially after the ultra-Orthodox jumped on his bandwagon.
Voting started on Sunday for IDF soldiers on duty, while polls open at 7 AM tomorrow for the general electorate - consisting of over 4 million eligible voters. In the final bank of opinion surveys on election eve, Sharon is poised to trounce Barak by about 20%. The last Dahaf poll for YEDIOT AHARONOT was announced on the evening TV news as Sharon 56%, Barak 37%, and 7% still undecided or unresponsive. In a concluding Gallup poll published in MA'ARIV this morning, Sharon crushed Barak 55% to 36%. A US-based poll for Abu Dhabi TV showed a 26% gap between the front-runner Sharon and Barak.
Hoping to narrow the gap over the weekend, Barak focused his campaign on traditional left-wing voters, Israeli Arabs and Russian immigrants. But despite the frantic electioneering, Barak appears to have lost the overall support of both the Israeli Arab and Russian immigrant communities, in a complete reversal of the 1999 race. Together, these sectors constitute more than 30 per cent of the electorate.
According to some estimates, Barak has lost 40% of those who voted for him last time out. One polling pundit said the Barak campaign's efforts to paint ex-general Sharon as a warmonger have simply backfired.
In an appearance on a political TV talk show, Barak defended his handling of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, in which he agreed to far-reaching concessions on such sensitive issues as the fate of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and borders. "I stand my ground, look reality in the eye, remove the mask from (PLO chief Yasser) Arafat, remove the filters from the eyes of Israelis and I am ready to weigh ground-breaking ideas," Barak said.
Ever popular in Israel, former US President Bill Clinton did another one of his exclusive interviews with Israeli TV CHANNEL TWO over the weekend, hoping to give Barak whatever boost he could. "I can't say enough how much I respect the risks that Prime Minister Barak has taken," gushed Clinton, being ever so careful to add that he would never want to interfere in an Israeli election.
Using the weekly Cabinet meeting as a backdrop, Barak made a last-ditch appeal on Sunday for Arab support, expressing "deep regret" for the deaths of 13 Arab citizens in the Rosh Hashana riots four months ago. "In my name and in the name of the government, I express deep sorrow over the death of Arab citizens. In demonstrations, even if they are illegal, Israeli citizens should not be killed. It is very important that Israel's Arab citizens feel that the country is everyone's, and that their blood is as precious to us as that of other citizens."
Some Arab leaders welcomed the apology, while most rejected it as too little too late. But all seemed to stand firm in urging a boycott of the polls, even though Palestinian Authority officials pleaded with them to cast ballots for Barak.
Police have warned that there might be attempts by some extremists to disrupt fellow Arabs trying to vote. Barak campaign officials are concern that a beefed-up police presence could actually deter Arab voters from going to the polls and spark new troubles.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and other Islamic clerics have issued religious edicts declaring that participation in the Israeli election is a violation of Islamic law, because to vote would be to put their trust in Jews. The Mufti has said, however, that he "would love" for Sharon to win, "to reveal to everyone what Zionism is all about."
In a final gasp for Arab turnout, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin urged the firing of Northern Region police chief Cmdr. Alik Ron, who commanded Israeli police units deployed to quell the rioting. Top figures in the Arab sector have been calling for Cmdr. Ron's head for months.
But even if the Arabs came out in droves for Barak, it would not be enough to offset his deficits elsewhere. He appears to have lost the majority of Russian voters and Sharon perhaps sealed his victory by picking up the endorsement of the Ashkenazi haredim community on Sunday. The Left quickly charged Sharon had promised the moon to the ultra-Orthodox, including a continuation of the special draft deferral system for yeshiva students, but the Sharon camp denied any deals were cut.
As for the Russian immigrants, Lili Galili, an expert on the community's affairs said Sharon's rise in popularity began at Camp David, CNSNEWS reported. Although mostly secular, she said that Russians have a strong affiliation with Jerusalem, and became alarmed by the negotiation over the Temple Mount. Galili also noted that Sharon has the support of the two Russian immigrant political parties behind him.
In sharp contrast to Barak's torrent pace, Sharon ran a low-key campaign over recent days, cancelling most media appearances in a bid to avoid any last-minute miscues.
At his final campaign rally in Holon, Sharon reiterated that he will not negotiate with the Palestinians until they stop the intifada. " I will conduct negotiations, but our neighbors know that...my word is my word, yes is yes and no is no," he said. "They know my red lines for negotiations, and the first and foremost is that there must be full security for Israeli citizens."
In a column published in YEDIOT AHARONOT on Monday, Sharon again vowed, "The Israeli government, under my leadership, will not hold negotiations under fire and will not grant any prize for violence. Only after the violence ends... will we resume negotiations," he wrote.
Sharon, who has avoided discussing the content of his peace plan, also told the French journal LE FIGARO he would agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state only if it was a product of a negotiated peace deal, demilitarised, preserved Israel's security interests and ended the conflict.
Addressing the hostile tone of recent campaign rhetoric, Israeli President Moshe Katsav assured today that, "The election is not a battle of the 'Sons of light' against the 'Sons of darkness', but rather a method of deciding in a democratic manner between legitimate controversies in Israeli society."
At the same time, Fatah leaders warned that the intifada would escalate if Sharon wins the election. "We will show the Israeli public that Sharon can not bring them security," Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi said. Meanwhile, Israeli Arab MK Azmi Bishara urged Palestinians in Ramallah yesterday to continue the intifada following a Sharon victory, to disprove right-wing politicians who claim that the Arabs only understand force.
Finally, the Islamic Jihad movement today threatened to carry out a "wave" of terrorist attacks against Israeli targets to greet the election. The radical Islamic faction promised a "coming wave of attacks" in revenge for the killing of a Jihad activist killed last night near the Kissufim crossing-point between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The man was killed by IDF forces as he attempted to climb the fence between Israel and Gaza. He was carrying some 15-kilos of explosives in a backpack, and planned to carry out a large-scale terrorist attack in central Israel in the next few days.
Security forces have spread out a 15,000-strong force across the country in an effort to ensure peaceful elections tomorrow.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.