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Sharon Optimistic About Peace Prospects in Post-Arafat Era

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sounded a note of optimism about the prospects for Middle East peace, crediting the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority for the brightened outlook.

In an address to members of his Likud Party in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, Mr. Sharon said the recent actions by the new Palestinian leadership had given him reason for optimism for peace prospects, and made him more determined than ever to go through with his planned withdrawal from all the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

The Israeli leader said the Palestinian leadership would find a willing partner, if it continues its fight against terrorism.

Mr. Sharon also warned rebels in his Likud Party that he would not hesitate to call early elections, if they prevent him from bringing the moderate Labor Party into the government to bolster his minority position.

Mr. Sharon said a broad and stable government is essential to prevent early elections. He said those who want elections think they will bring him down, but he said he is confident that, should early elections be necessary, he will win. Elections are not scheduled until November 2006.

The political upheaval that resulted from his disengagement plan has left Mr. Sharon with no coalition partners and an urgent need for political support. Likud's Central Committee is to vote on whether to accept Labor in the coalition later this week.

Meanwhile, two opinion polls on the Palestinian presidential race show leader Mahmoud Abbas scoring 40 percent support among voters, but in one poll the jailed leader of the Palestinian uprising, Marwan Barghouti, is shown with a popularity rating of 38 percent. The second poll showed him with a much lower 21.9 percent.

The two polls, conducted by independent pollsters Khalil Shekaki and Nabil Kukali, are the first since the candidates announced their intentions to campaign for the Palestinian presidency.

Despite the popular Mr. Barghouti's entrance into the contest, both surveys showed a major increase in the popularity of Mr. Abbas who is the candidate of Fatah, the largest and most influential group within the PLO. Marwan Barghouti is a Fatah member, but is running as an independent candidate. He had originally said he would not contest the election, but changed his mind and filed his candidacy just hours before the deadline expired.

Altogether there are 10 candidates vying for the presidency. The election is scheduled for January 9.