Barak, Sharon campaigns enter homestretch


JERUSALEM, Feb. 4 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Ariel Sharon are making a final campaign push as the nation heads to the polls Tuesday to vote for prime minister.

After a Sabbath break in campaigning, the pressure is primarily on Barak, who trails Sharon by as much as 20 points in weekend opinion polls.

Disappointed with both candidates, many Israelis say they will leave their ballots blank or stay away from the voting booths altogether.

On Sunday, Barak took a step widely viewed as an attempt to woo one of the groups threatening to boycott the election — the large Israeli Arab community.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting, Barak apologized for the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs during riots and violent confrontations with police last October.

“In my name and in the name of the government, I express sorrow over the death of Arab citizens,” said Barak, who needs Israeli Arab support to have any chance of winning Tuesday’s election.

“As prime minister, I hold general responsibility for everything that happens in the country during my term, and also for these incidents.”

Meanwhile, Sharon on Sunday secured the support of a key group, fervently Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi descent.

Sharon denied speculation that he had cut a deal in exchange for the declaration of support from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc.

Despite his denial, sources in Likud were quoted Sunday as saying that Sharon, if elected, would extend an order granting army draft deferrals to yeshiva students. UTJ leaders also were quoted in the Jerusalem Post discussing how they might benefit from Sharon’s anticipated victory.

In another development, former Cabinet minister Roni Milo, an ex- Likudnik who now is a member of the Center Party, announced his backing for Sharon over the weekend.

Milo said he had spoken with Sharon and was convinced of his intention to form a national unity government if elected.

Milo pulled out of the government several weeks ago to protest Barak’s purported willingness to make concessions on Jerusalem in the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, offered different assessments on the Israeli election.

Palestinian official Nabil Sha’ath said the Palestinian Authority would negotiate with the winner of the Israeli election, whoever it is.

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said a Sharon victory would serve extremists on both sides.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction said it plans to step up its violence against Israel, regardless of the election outcome.

“Fatah will pursue its national struggle against occupation,” Marwan Barghouti, who heads Fatah operations in the West Bank, said Saturday.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there were scattered clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians over the weekend.

Three Palestinians were wounded by Israeli troops during riots in Hebron on Saturday.

Following West Bank shooting attacks in which two Israelis were killed last week, the Israel Defense Force reimposed a blockade of Palestinian towns and cities, with the exception of Kalkilya and Jericho.

The IDF also imposed a ban on Palestinian drivers traveling alone in private vehicles.

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