Jericho raid boosts Israeli PM's election campaign

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The Independent Online

The storming of the Jericho prison by Israeli forces this week has brought an increase in the popularity of the government of the acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to the first opinion poll taken since the raid. The findings for Army Radio less than two weeks before the Israeli general election follow widespread Israeli media acclaim for the raid and show a rise of five seats to 43 for the Kadima Party. They have yet to be corroborated by other polls to be taken in the wake of the prison siege.

The poll also shows an unexpected rise of two seats to 16 for Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party, whose strategists are reportedly worried that the Jericho raid will boost Kadima's fortunes at their expense. It shows Labour slipping to third place with 14 seats, although other polls have shown it at about 20.

The Israeli pollster Avi Dagani said the findings for Likud showed an "outgrowth" effect of the raid, which has provoked Palestinian condemnations of Israel and of Britain and the US for withdrawing their monitoring mission from the jail. The Palestinian leadership has rejected British and US explanations that the monitors were withdrawn because of security threats and the laxity of the regime under which the prisoners were kept.

The poll also found that 61 per cent of voters thought the raid "vital from the national security standpoint", while 23 per cent attributed electoral motives to the raid. Six wanted prisoners, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader, Ahmed Saadat, who is accused of ordering the 2001 assassination of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi, surrendered at the end of Tuesday's siege.

Israeli officials made no effort to disguise their view that the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had been weakened by the episode. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said the US and the UK had withdrawn because the Palestinians had not "performed their obligations" and because Hamas had won the Palestinian elections. "The responsibility for Mahmoud Abbas's powerlessness lies with Mahmoud Abbas," she said.

Mr Saadat's lawyer, Mahmoud Hassan, said his client had already denied accusations of being involved in the assassination under questioning at an Israeli interrogation centre in Jerusalem. Mr Hassan also quoted the PFLP leader as saying: "I told the interrogators I do not recognise any interrogation. This is illegal. I rejected my presence in their jails as illegal."

A World Bank report submitted to the donor nations this week predicts a 27 per cent shrinking of the Palestinian economy in 2006 if Israel continues to withhold $50m (£29m) to $60m in duties it collects on behalf of the PA and the international community fulfils its threat to reduce aid in response to Hamas's electoral victory. This is an equivalent slump to that in the US Great Depression of 1929-34.

The World Bank findings are in line with predictions from the UN's Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which has also indicated that a failure to pay salaries to 140,000 PA employees - a crucial element in the Palestinian economy - will produce an economic disaster worse than at the peak of the post-2000 Palestinian uprising. UN officials predict the most immediate effect, before deepening poverty and collapse of services, will be an increase in lawlessness in the occupied territories because of a failure to pay security personnel.

In the scenario regarded as most likely by the World Bank - that Israel will withhold revenues owed to the PA and international aid will be reduced, unless Hamas suddenly recognises Israel and fully renounces violence - it predicts unemployment rising from 23.4 per cent to 39.6 per cent in 2006, while poverty levels will rise from 44 per cent 67 per cent.

In 2007 unemployment would rise to 44 per cent and poverty - measured on a normal international scale - would rise 72 per cent.