Palestinian urges Israelis to vote for peace
Barak, Sharon enter final days before critical election
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Sha'ath called on Saturday for Israelis to vote for peace in Tuesday's election for prime minister and cast their ballots to stop the ongoing violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Opinion polls have consistently shown incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak trailing hawkish Likud party chairman Ariel Sharon, who portrays himself as the peace candidate, by as much as 21 percentage points.
"We will be ready to deal with any Israeli government provided it is committed to the rules of the game, to the agreements we signed and to the peace process that will come to end the siege and refrain totally from any settlement activities and move toward making real peace," Sha'ath said.
"I hope the Israeli voters really act in a way that makes it absolutely imperative for whoever is elected to get an Israeli popular message that he has to commit himself to peace," he added.
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.
With three days left until Israelis vote, both Barak and Sharon were out of public sight Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
Sharon: Peace with security
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, who was considered unelectable as recently as six weeks ago because of his hard-line views, has said little about what he will do if he is elected. He has, however, pledged to guarantee Israeli security in the region -- and to make no further concessions to the Palestinians.
"I understand the importance of peace much better than a lot of politicians do who talk about it," said Sharon. "With me, peace will be a peace for generations and not a gimmick of the elections."
Barak: We're close to agreement
A Gallup poll published Friday showed Sharon leading Barak 51 to 34 percent. But, in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Barak appealed to Israeli voters to allow him to continue his efforts to find a peace with the Palestinians, no matter how unpopular his stands may have been.
"We are now at a crucial stage of the peace," he said. "It's natural that it's tough, it's natural that it comes with violence."
Barak came under fire for continuing to negotiate with the Palestinians -- the latest round of talks ended on Sunday -- while the violence continued. But Barak and Palestinian officials insist that their talks have brought the two sides closer than ever to peace -- and that an agreement is within sight.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who chose not to run because the current parliament is not running for re-election, told CNN on Friday that Barak had made proposals that are an anathema to Israeli voters on the right and left, such as allowing the Palestinians to have sovereignty over east Jerusalem.
But Barak said even if he does not win he has "defined the question" and predicted that any eventual peace agreement will deal with the issues he has been negotiating with the Palestinians.
CNN Correspondents Fionnuala Sweeney and Christiane Amanpour and News Editor Randall H. Harber contributed to this report.
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