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CNN Today

Israeli Election: Ehud Barak Trailing Ariel Sharon By Double- Digits in Polls

Aired February 1, 2001 - 2:44 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Another contentious political issue in the news today: A week from today, Israel could have a new leader. Right now, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is trailing his challenger, Ariel Sharon, by as much as 22 percentage points. Now, adding to this, see if there is an impact from a new government report released today that clears Sharon of any responsibility for the latest fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Our Jerusalem bureau chief Mike Hanna looks at exactly what is at stake in this election.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A song in praise of Ariel Sharon, the man many at this rally believe should be the next prime minister of Israel.

And at the launch of his campaign, a flattering bio-pic with images of a younger and somewhat leaner soldier in the field, as well as of the older general who served Israel through so many wars.

His critics say Sharon, the man of war, could never achieve a peace with Palestinians. His supporters insist he's the very man to enforce one. And as befits an old military tactician, he says he has a plan in place should he become prime minister.

ARIEL SHARON, LIKUD LEADER (through translator): First there has to be complete calm, then a multistage agreement where one can follow developments of the relations between us and the Palestinians, and following that arrive at a different peace.

HANNA: A different peace, in which all Jewish settlements would be kept in place in Palestinian territories; one in which Israel would retain control of the Jordan Valley at the eastern edge of the West Bank; one in which tunnels would be built under road junctions to enable Palestinians to travel between various Palestinian cities without encountering Israeli army checkpoints; and one in which the whole of Jerusalem would be under Israeli sovereignty.

To Sharon's detractors, his peace plan is a recipe for war.

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): This stinging contradiction between the talk on Jerusalem and what can be done in practice stabs at the eye and hurts the heart. With these plans, we will get nowhere. These plans are throwing sand in the eyes of the public. These plans are an insult to the intelligence of the public and the voters of Israel.

HANNA: But until the partial agreement at Taba, Ehud Barak's efforts had produced little tangible result. Until then, months of intense negotiation had revealed more division between the two sides in any common ground, and Barak himself has come under increasing criticism from the very people he wanted as his partners in peace.

The Palestinians said the Barak government had exercised excessive force in response to legitimate process. They pointed to the use of punitive tactics, such as the forced closure of Palestinian territories, as an example of how Barak waged economic war while talking peace. And they argue that his primary concern was not a settlement for the Palestinians, but the continued support of the Israeli public.

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: So the Israeli prime minister was able to construe: the more harm, the more pain, the more killings, the more economic siege against Palestinians, the more work they get. Something is really wrong. Something is really wrong, and the Israelis must face the realities.

HANNA: But the reality is, say Barak supporters, the Taba agreement proves that he has been willing to talk about giving up land, even about giving up parts of Jerusalem. And they say he's continued to adopt peace positions that have cost him support.

GILEAD SHER, PRIME MINISTER SPOKESMAN: He has given up every political support that he had in his coalition. He went down in the polls on the personal level, which is somewhere he would not be if not doing peace so courageously and so persistently and with such determination and honesty that no other leader would match.

HANNA: And the same Palestinians who criticized Barak so vigorously find little comfort in Ariel Sharon's world view.

ERAKAT: What he's describing for peace is actually a recipe for war, a recipe for disaster, a recipe for continuation of the cycle of violence and counterviolence, and maybe just enlarging it to cover the whole region.

HANNA: So despite Palestinian reservations, the peace process, they believe, would better be served by Barak as prime minister, if only for the reason he is regarded as the lesser of two evils.

(on camera): But one well-placed source close to the government is adamant nothing is what it seems. One scenario the source insists is a real possibility goes like this:

(voice-over): If Ariel Sharon becomes prime minister, he appoints as his defense minister Ehud Barak; as his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, a unity government assured of the support of the Knesset or parliament. And ultimately it's the parliament that would have to approve any peace deal reached with the Palestinians, no matter who is Prime Minister.

(on camera): A radical theory, but one that offers a partial answer to the question about what's at stake for peace. It's not individuals that will negotiate an agreement, but governments.

Mike Hanna, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: It is now just after 9:00 in the evening in Jerusalem. And with election day just days away, we dispatched our senior political analyst Bill Schneider to Jerusalem. And he's still hard at work -- hello there, Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Natalie?

ALLEN: Hello.

Listen, we just heard in Mike Hanna's report about how this is going and what has happened to Ehud Barak's support over the many months. Where do thing stands as it looks in this election?

SCHNEIDER: You know, Natalie, I can't speak -- find a single person here in Israel or in Washington who believes Ehud Barak is likely to be elected prime minister. It was a snap election he called. Everyone believes Sharon is going to win.

The latest poll, which will be published tomorrow, shows Sharon 17 points ahead. But that poll shows Sharon with just 51 percent of vote: 51 to 34, which indicates that if the undecided votes who are left, who haven't yet been able to make a choice, if they come around to Barak and don't cast what's called white ballots -- or blank ballots -- it's possible this election could be very close. It would take miracle to elect Ehud Barak. But, you know, Natalie, we are in Jerusalem.

ALLEN: That's true. Bill, Ariel Sharon, he's been such a controversial figure for many years. Would he be able to govern?

SCHNEIDER: Well, as Mike just said, it would be -- he would have to form a government in order to last more than a few months. His government would have to be broad-based, which means he would have to reach out to the Labor Party and perhaps even to Ehud Barak and get Barak to go into his Cabinet, possibly as defense minister, and maybe former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

If can he do that, then he may be able to govern for a period of time. If he cannot do that, if the Labor Party decides not join a Sharon government, then the best he can hope for is a very narrowly based right-wing government with a bare majority of parliament. And no one believes that that can last more than -- certainly not beyond the end of this year. So we could see another election before the end of this year.

ALLEN: Bill Schneider, we thank you in Jerusalem.

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