Unstoppable Sharon marches towards victory

Final opinion polls forecast win for Likud as upstart Shinui party tries to challenge dominance of traditional left

By Justin Huggler
Tuesday 28 January 2003 01:00

Israel votes in national elections today, with the final polls predicting almost certain victory for Ariel Sharon, who sent the tanks back into Palestinian cities and has been accused of sparking off the intifada with his visit to Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif.

Amram Mitzna, the opposition Labour leader who promised to restart peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat and withdraw from part of the occupied territories if elected, appeared to be heading for a resounding defeat.

The last polls to be published before election day predicted Mr Sharon's Likud Party would win 34 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, at best, and 30 at worst. Labour was likely to win between 18 and 20, one of its worst showings yet.

The pollsters have got it wrong before in Israel, and with 7 per cent of voters still undecided, according to yesterday's Haaretz poll, there could still be some surprises – but it is unlikely that they will stop Mr Sharon's victory march. Nothing seems to have been able to halt it.

A corruption scandal that broke in the middle of the campaign dented Likud's support but Mr Sharon bounced back. Mr Mitzna's strategy of campaigning on a pro-peace agenda appears to have backfired completely.

If the polls are right, Mr Sharon's victory will dismay Palestinians, notwithstanding assurances that he intends to pursue President George Bush's "vision" of a Palestinian state. Many Palestinians fear Saturday night's incursion by the Israeli army deep into Gaza City, in which 12 Palestinians were killed, was a taste of things to come.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip were sealed off yesterday, with no Palestinians allowed into Israel. The Israeli authorities were saying they were concerned about a possible attack by militants during voting today even before Hamas vowed revenge for the Gaza incursion, and the total closure will remain until tomorrow.

Mr Sharon is so confident of victory, Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday, that he has already prepared his victory speech. "This will not be an election speech, but a coronation speech," the paper reported, quoting "a source close to Sharon" as saying: "Every word will be well-weighed and measured. His words will be broadcast throughout the world six hours before Bush's speech on Iraq, and this has great significance." In his speech, Mr Sharon would make a "heartfelt call" to Labour to join a "national unity" government.

It looks as if the real problem for Mr Sharon will not be winning at the ballot box but forming a coalition government he wants to work with.

Mr Mitzna has said Labour will not join agovernment under Mr Sharon. That could force Mr Sharon into a coalition he does not want, with religious and far-right parties.

The religious parties are unpopular with the majority of Israelis – the surge in support for the secular Shinui party is proof of that. And the far right would oppose any sort of move towards a Palestinian state and and would come between Mr Sharon and the US administration, with which he wants to maintain good relations.

Mr Sharon's camp has been banking on Labour joining after all, either with Mr Mitzna or without him if his rivals manage to get him replaced as party leader. But the Israeli press reported yesterday that Labour might stay out even "after the long knives of Labour have been stained", as Nadav Eyal put it in Maariv.

The winner of today's vote will have weeks to put together a coalition, so there will be plenty of negotiating ahead.

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