Blow for Barak as Rabbis back Sharon
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.
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.
Gunfire punctuates Israeli Sabbath campaign break
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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