Israeli polls show Labour facing worst defeat ever

By Justin Huggler
Friday 24 January 2003 01:00

Israel's Labour Party, the architect of the peace process with the Palestinians, is heading for the worst defeat in its history in elections next week, according to polls published yesterday. If they are right – there are thousands of undecided voters – then Labour is staring into the abyss.

For now, Ariel Sharon looks certain to remain Prime Minister, his Likud party far ahead.

The polls are a disaster for Amram Mitzna, the Labour leader and former general who has campaigned on a more openly pro-peace ticket than his predecessors. Mr Mitzna promised to return to negotiations with Yasser Arafat and withdraw troops from part of the Occupied Territories.

"Desperation in Labour Party: we might turn into only the third largest party in parliament" was the headline yesterday in Yedioth Ahronoth, a daily newspaper.

According to the paper's poll, the most dramatic of three published yesterday, Shinui, a party which has stormed up the polls on a promise to curb the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews, is snapping at Labour's heels for second place.

Shinui is predicted to win 17-18 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, with Labour just ahead, winning 18 or 19. Moreover, the party is still haemorrhaging votes – the Yedioth poll put it a seat down from Monday's predictions.

Mr Sharon's Likud Party is far out ahead, slated to win 33 or 34 seats, and it is still gaining ground. Two other polls were equally disastrous for Labour, though they did not predict quite as strong showings for either Likud or Shinui.

Mr Mitzna can take comfort in the fact that the pollsters have got it wrong before in Israel. And a huge number of voters still remain undecided – as many as 16 per cent according to a poll in the newspaper Ha'aretz yesterday.

It is believed the undecided could account for as many as 20 seats in the Knesset, and half of them are believed to be completely unsure.

So bad is Labour's current showing that Mr Mitzna's rivals within the party are already sharpening their knives.

Shimon Peres, 79, publicly stated yesterday he had no intention of taking over in a last-minute leadership change. Mr Mitzna's opponents proposed the plan after a poll predicted the party would do much better with Mr Peres in charge.

Meanwhile the violence continued as at least three Israelis were shot dead yesterday when their car was ambushed south of Hebron.

Israeli sources said the dead were soldiers travelling in a military vehicle. According to rescue services, suspected Palestinian militants opened fire on the vehicle at a junction near the Arab village of Yatta.

The Israeli army was combing the area for the attackers last night. In the past, militant attacks so close to an election were thought to have played into the hands of the more hardline Israeli parties.

Hebron, where Israeli army patrols protect about 450 Jewish settlers who live in the midst of tens of thousands of Palestinians, has long been a flashpoint. The settlers are slowly edging Palestinians out of the old city, and Palestinians are often forced to live under curfew to allow settlers to walk the streets.

¿ Israeli attack helicopters fired at least five missiles at targets in the southern and eastern districts of Gaza City early this morning, witnesses said. It was not immediately clear what the targets were, and no casualties were reported. Earlier, about 20 Israeli tanks entered Gaza City from the south.

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