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CNN Today

Likud Party Leader Ariel Sharon Maintains Comfortable Lead in Polls

Aired February 5, 2001 - 4:19 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: Hours from now, Israelis are to go to the polls to choose their new prime minister. And if the latest polls are on target, the opposition leader Ariel Sharon will clinch a stunning political comeback. In the latest Gallup poll, 55 percent of the respondents backed Sharon; 36 percent support the current prime minister, Ehud Barak. CNN's Christiane Amanpour is covering the election and she joins us from Jerusalem now with the latest there -- Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joie, from Tel Aviv, actually, we've just moved down here to be closer to the election headquarters and those poll numbers that you just quoted have been holding pretty steady throughout the last couple of weeks. It's between a 19- to 20-point lead that polls are giving the Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon over the incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Now, Barak, even though official campaign for broadcasting purposes were over today, Barak was nonetheless out pressing the flesh, trying to appeal to some of his core constituents, trying down to the very last minute to get the votes he so desperately needs.

On the other hand, Ariel Sharon, in reflection of what the polls seemed to be indicating, self-confident enough today not to hit the campaign trail. Rather, he stayed in his office most of the day, closeted with his aides and strategists, discussing strategy in the days ahead and discussing, quite frankly, what they're now calling the day after -- Joie.

CHEN: Christiane, talk to us a little bit about what the outlook is here. I mean, obviously Mr. Barak has been so far behind in the polls for such a long time. Surely, he doesn't think he's going to make it up in the next 24 hours. What is the strategy here? What's the thinking?

AMANPOUR: Well, certainly they're trying to be optimistic. There's a sense that they just can't believe that this is happening. If indeed it's a rout, if indeed Barak loses by a hefty percentage point, then the future is rather cloudy. He will be under a great deal of pressure to leave the Labor party, to resign as head of the Labor party, hand over the reins.

If he does not lose by a huge margin, if indeed the polls are correct and suggests that he loses, if he loses by a quote, "respectable margin," well, then the Labor Party, according to strategists, say they'll try to rebuild themselves and present themselves for parliamentary elections.

And also there's this whole issue as to whether the Labor Party would, if it loses this election, join a national unity government that Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party leader, has said that he wants to form. This, we understand, is a key strategic move that Ariel Sharon wants to put into place as a way of going forward with the whole country behind him, and as a way of maintaining a coalition that has a chance of lasting.

Any other coalition, people think, even if Ariel Sharon wins and puts together a narrow coalition, may not last very many months. So you've got the internal domestic policies and then the whole question of where does the peace process go? And that also is not very clear. There seems to be two, as we have seen, different approaches from Barak, who wants to negotiate; and Ariel Sharon, who wants to be tough and demand an end to the violence before he enters any meaningful negotiations -- Joie.

CHEN: CNN's Christiane Amanpour for us from Tel Aviv in Israel.

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