Barak tries to coax Israeli Arabs to polls as vote nears
Barak, Sharon enter final days before critical election
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Trailing badly in polls two days before elections, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday tried to keep a key constituency, Israeli Arabs, from sitting out Tuesday's vote.
At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Barak offered a brief statement of sympathy for Arab citizens killed during four months of clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians. The violence has withered the chances for a peace agreement that Barak won a mandate to seek in 1999.
"As prime minister, I take responsibility for all that happens in this country, including the events when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed," said Barak. "In the name of the government and myself, I express my deep sadness for the death of the Arab citizens."
Meanwhile, a top ally of Likud leader Ariel Sharon tried to reassure Israelis that the former defense minister would continue to pursue talks with the Palestinians if he won Tuesday's vote.
Israeli Arabs represent 12 percent to 13 percent of Israeli voters and have supported Barak heavily in the past, but they are threatening to boycott Tuesday's election. Arab voters have expressed dissatisfaction at Barak's handing of the current round of violence and his slowness to express regret over the killing of Arab Israelis during the conflict.
Labor Party candidate Barak already is trailing Sharon by up to 20 percentage points in some polls, and Sharon got a boost Sunday when rabbis from two Ultra-Orthodox religious parties urged their members to vote for him.
The Shas Party and the Council of Torah Sages, both of whom have had trouble striking deals with Barak on narrow issues of interest to them, endorsed Sharon, although the Torah Sages did not mention Sharon by name.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews represent 8 percent of Israeli voters and normally follow the direction of their rabbis. The Torah Sages have been pressing Sharon to agree to the extension of a law giving religious students military deferments, but Sharon said he had not made any deals with the group.
"I have not and will not sign agreement with parties before the elections," he said, adding that he was "glad to get support from any sector of society."
Sharon ally tries to reassure voters
At a campaign stop in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, Barak told a crowd of about 1,000 supporters that Tuesday's vote was a choice between peace and continuing conflict. A top Sharon ally, meanwhile, tried to reassure voters that Sharon would continue negotiations with the Palestinians.
"The Sharon of today is not necessarily the Sharon of 30 years ago," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told CNN. "What we need now is a political process different from the one proposed by Barak, but a political process. Sharon is ready for it. He understands we need to make peace, and to do that we need to make sacrifices."
Sharon, who has refused to give media interviews prior to the election, has said he wants to form a unity government if he wins, including all parties. However, Barak has said he would not join what he called an "extremist" government.
Sharon was a successful Israeli general and served as defense minister during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which sparked intense criticism from Arabs and many inside Israel.
Barak's coalition eroding, polls show
Polls on Sunday continued to show that Barak is behind because of eroding support from his traditional base of backers on the left wing. Polling numbers show that the turnout, which normally runs as high as 90 percent in most Israeli elections, could be as low as 70 percent.
While Israeli Arabs are furious with Barak over his handling of the clashes in the West Bank and Gaza, secular Jews are disillusioned with Barak's attempts to strike a peace deal under the 7-year-old Oslo accords. Bar-Ilan University analyst Gerald Steinberg said Barak's predicament grows from a sense that the Oslo process has failed.
"The polls also show Israelis feel that this process has brought everything but peace," he said. "Mr. Barak has made a great deal of concessions, and the average Israeli voters now say, 'What have we gotten in response? Just violence, just terrorism.'"
Barak told CNN that Israelis may still be "unripe" to accept the concessions he has wanted to make, but he asserted he has "defined the question" and predicted a final peace agreement will be along the lines of the deal he has been trying to negotiate.
But many of those who supported Barak in his 1999 election are going to stay home, Steinberg said.
"These issues are extremely important for the broad Israeli population, and those who choose not to vote are registering a protest against both candidates -- not necessarily fatigue," Steinberg said.
Israeli Arabs are not alone among those who appear to be turning their backs on Barak: Russian immigrants, who make up 18 percent of Israeli voters, voted heavily for the prime minister in 1999 but appear likely to back Sharon by up to 60 percent on Tuesday.
New violence kills 2; U.S. urges restraint
The violence that has hamstrung peace efforts for months continued Sunday in the Palestinian territories. Israeli troops reported killing a Palestinian who they said was trying to infiltrate Israel in southern Gaza at Kissufim.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society also reported the death of a Palestinian in that area. The incident followed a day in which the Palestinian Red Crescent said six Palestinians were wounded in a series of incidents in Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestinian Authority leaders have expressed concern over a Sharon victory and have appealed to Israeli voters to cast their votes for Barak and his peace initiatives. But Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Sha'ath sounded resigned to a Likud win.
"The region is going to enter a new period on Tuesday. His (Sharon's) history is known, but the future is not," Sha'ath said.
Meanwhile, Israel's most significant ally, the United States, urged restraint Sunday. But top aides to President George W. Bush said the administration would be willing to work with whichever man emerged as the country's new leader.
"The most important step is for all to act with a sense of calm, a sense of statesmanship," U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN. "Violence will achieve nothing, and if all parties are committed to the creation of a calm environment ... that will be very good. That will be our message to all the responsible parties in the region."
Added Secretary of State Colin Powell: "Mr. Sharon knows, if he is elected ... that force of arms will not solve this problem. The only thing that will solve this problem is an agreement at some point, as to how these two peoples can live in peace."
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