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Blow for Barak as Rabbis back Sharon

Ariel Sharon
Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon enjoys a huge lead in opinion polls  
  WEB EXCLUSIVE

JERUSALEM, Israel (CNN) -- Israel's ultra-Orthodox Rabbi leaders have dealt a blow to Prime Minister Ehud Barak before voters head to the polls to chose the country's next leader on Tuesday.

CNN's Jerusalem correspondent Jerrold Kessel said the Rabbis have issued a statement effectively calling on their followers to vote for right-wing front-runner Likud party leader Ariel Sharon.

The ultra orthodox Jews represent six percent of Israel's population of four million, and they are normally very loyal and obedient to what the Rabbis have to say, he added.

He said though the statement did not mention Sharon by name, "it was quite implicit in what they expect their followers to do."

The statement called on followers to "go out and vote for a candidate who we hope will not harm the interests of Judaism in the Holy Land."

The incumbent Barak is taking part in a series of weekend television interviews and appealing to both Arab Israeli and Russian-Israeli voters to back him.

He is trailing Sharon by as much as 21 percentage points in opinion polls.

 VIDEO
CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney reports on the final days of the campaign in Israel (February 3)

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CNN's Rula Amin reports on the grassroots campaign to boycott Israeli products

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Barak sat down for an interview on the election with CNN's Christiane Amanpour (February 2)

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BarakBarak tells CNN's Christiane Amanpour "now is a crucial stage of the peace process"

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 RESOURCES
graphicIn-Depth: Israel Election 2001
 

Support for the right-wing leader is believed to reflect Israeli frustration over the Middle East peace process.

Some Palestinian officials have speculated that a Sharon win would lead to out-and-out war, while others -- including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat -- have said little more about the pending vote than to note that the election is an internal Israeli affair.

Barak forced Tuesday's special election with a surprise resignation on December 10, pre-empting a fractured Israeli Knesset's attempt to disband and force general elections.

Barak's popularity has plummeted during four months of bitter and deadly violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

The rash of fighting erupted following Sharon's September 28 visit to a disputed east Jerusalem holy site in the aftermath of the collapse of peace talks a few weeks earlier.

More than 400 people -- most of them Palestinians -- have been killed in the near-daily clashes that began with angry Palestinian demonstrations and escalated into deadlier violence as the weeks went on.

Sharon has also held interviews to Russian television stations available on cable in Israel.

Barak and Sharon both say they are seeking lasting peace with Palestinians, Barak by continuing negotiations, Sharon by first emphasising security.

Barak's campaign on the ground was washed out on Saturday when only 1,000 Israeli peace activists braved rainy weather to trudge the streets of Jerusalem in a torchlight march in support of him.

On Saturday, a clash between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank left three Palestinians wounded, the Palestine Red Crescent Society reported.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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Barak refuses to stand aside
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Hope for new Mideast summit
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Arafat may allow Jewish settlements
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Sharon calls peace talks a campaign ploy by Barak
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Mideast negotiators want to continue talks after Israeli elections
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Mideast talks sidestep impasse; more planned
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RELATED SITES:
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Israeli Prime Minister's Office
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
Likud
Meretz Party (In Hebrew)
Avoda (Labour) Party (In Hebrew)
World Economic Forum
Palestinian National Authority
PLO Negotiations Affairs Department
Israel Defense Forces
Palestinian Red Crescent

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