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Barak remains in race as deadline passes

Barak remains in race as deadline passes

Palestinian violence overshadowed a political deadline yesterday for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose first act after it became certain that he would face hard-liner and front-runner Ariel Sharon in a February 6 election was to denounce the killing of two Israelis in the West Bank.Barak resisted pressure to stand aside and allow elder statesman Shimon Peres take his place as the Labor Party candidate even though polls showed Peres faring better than Barak against Sharon.
The Palestinian issue has dominated the campaign, and violence overshadowed peace efforts Thursday. Barak called off international efforts to arrange a pre-election summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after an Israeli was shot to death while picking up his car at a West Bank garage.
Later another Israeli died when Palestinians opened fire on his car in the West Bank, and two Palestinians were killed, one by Israeli army gunfire in the Gaza Strip and the other by fellow Palestinians who suspected him of collaborating with the Israelis.
In four months of unrest, 383 people have been killed, including 322 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs, 47 other Israelis and one German doctor.
Barak denounced the killing of the two Israelis. In a statement Friday, he said security for Israelis means separation from the Palestinians, preferably by agreement, but if not, "we will initiate a staged security separation." Earlier he said a unilateral separation plan would require Israel to keep larger parts of the West Bank than under a peace agreement.
In peace negotiations, Barak offered the Palestinians a state in 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with control over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and special arrangements for holy sites.
Sharon denounced Barak's concessions and demanded that Barak stop contacts with the Palestinians while violence continues. If elected, Sharon said he would not honor any agreement Barak reaches before the election. Despite intensive contacts, no accord has been achieved.
According to Israeli election law, parties could change candidates until four days before the voting on Tuesday.
The deadline removed a heavy burden from Barak's back: the virtual candidacy of elder statesman Shimon Peres. Because Barak has consistently trailed Sharon by double digits in pre-election polls, politicians and analysts speculated, suggested and pressed Barak to allow Peres to replace him as the peace camp candidate.
Though he was not a candidate, pollsters pitted Peres against Sharon every week and found them running even, while Sharon's lead over Barak has hovered around 20 percentage points.
Harried by constant questions about whether he planned to step aside, Barak said the real election campaign would begin only after the deadline, when voters who support compromise for peace with the Palestinians realized that Barak would be their candidate.
Many of the 20 percent of voters who say they are undecided between Barak and Sharon voted for Barak in 1999, but are disappointed with his performance. Some believe he went too far in his offers to the Palestinians, others feel he mishandled the negotiations with the Palestinians, failing to finalize a peace agreement, and still others soured on the idea of peace because of four months of Palestinian violence.
Barak believes that now, with Peres officially on the sidelines, the pro-peace voters will make up their minds in his favor, despite their misgivings, and give him a chance to win the election.
But pollster Mina Tsemach said that would not be enough. Her latest poll, to be published Friday in the Yediot Ahronot daily, shows Sharon with a 19-point lead. She told Israel television's second channel that fully a quarter of Barak's voters in 1999 plan to vote for Sharon this time. Unless Barak attracts many of them back, she said, he has no chance to win on Tuesday.
Peres campaigned beside Barak, but never made a clear statement ending his phantom campaign. Peres tried to stage a third-party challenge against Barak and Sharon but was unable to gain the required parliamentary support.
Though Barak's relations with Peres have been tense for years, Barak was forced to bring the elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate back into active peacemaking efforts in recent weeks, because Peres maintained relatively cordial ties with Arafat, while Barak and Arafat were barely on speaking terms.


Updated : 2021-10-23 18:07 GMT+08:00