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Sharon Defends Record, Eyes Re-Election Prospects - 2002-12-15

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is up for re-election in January. He seems poised to win that vote even though he acknowledges he has not fulfilled his earlier election pledge to bring security to Israel. While his popularity reflects a deepening conservative trend among the Israeli people, there remains a strong undercurrent favoring a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

It has been almost two years since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister of Israel, on a platform promising his citizens peace with security.

But the Israeli-Palestinian violence that began under his predecessor, Ehud Barak, has not been halted.

Despite Mr. Sharon's failure to stop the bloodshed, he is out to convince voters that he is still the best man for the job.

At the same time, he admitted to a conference of foreign correspondents in Israel, the task of restoring calm is no easier than when he started. "I can still assure you that I will make every effort to bring security and peace to the citizens of Israel. If you ask me, is it an easy thing? No, it is hard. You have to understand that we have been facing Arab or Palestinian terror for over 120 years," he told the reporters. "So its not an easy thing, but I can tell you what I promised. And these are the efforts I am making now, I am working now to bring peace and security and I hope that you will not be disappointed," he said.

There is no doubt that many Israelis are not only disappointed but often in despair that they remain in grave danger of losing their lives in Palestinian terror attacks.

But the opinion polls indicate that they do not place the blame on Mr. Sharon so much as the Palestinian leadership for failing to stop the attacks.

In a time of crisis, a majority of Israelis still trust Mr. Sharon to be at the helm more than any other leader. Challenging these perceptions is Israel's new Labor party leader, Amram Mitzna.

Like Mr. Sharon, he had a distinguished military career before moving into politics, first as the mayor of Haifa and now as a candidate for prime minister.

But the similarities between the two men end there. Mr. Sharon says a cease-fire must come before any resumption of peace talks. And he has made clear he is willing to make fairly small territorial concessions.

Mr. Mitzna wants an immediate and unconditional resumption of negotiations. And he has indicated he would be willing to return vast stretches of the West Bank to Palestinian control, and possibly to dismantle Israeli settlements.

Still, Mr. Mitzna says under his leadership Israel would continue to exercise the right to respond to terror, if the violence persisted. "I will call the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table without pre-conditions. And we would continue to fight terrorism like there is no negotiation and to negotiate like there is no terrorism. This is the only way, this is the only way to succeed to reach a new future for the people of Israel," Mr. Mitzna said.

Mr. Mitzna and Mr. Sharon have clashed before.

As a young military commander, Mr. Mitzna resigned from the army in 1982, to protest Mr. Sharon's handling of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Mr. Sharon was then the defense minister.

Later, the findings of an Israeli judicial inquiry into the massacres at Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila camps led to Mr. Sharon being removed from his post. Few expected him to ever recover, let alone become prime minister.

But even some of his most severe critics in Israel have noted that Mr. Sharon has been able to remold himself into a mature politician, no longer driven by some of the wilder impulses that marked his earlier years.

Ehud Ya'ari, is an Israeli political commentator and author of several books on the Middle East conflict. Mr. Ya'ari, a strong critic of Mr. Sharon in the past, acknowledges the Prime Minister's transformation into a formidable political leader.

"A skillful politician, Sharon is skillful. I did not speak to him for 15 years, not until recently, but he is very skillful," Mr. Ya'ari said.

Public opinion polls predict that Mr. Sharon's Likud party will win more than 35 seats in parliament, compared with only 22 for Mr. Mitzna's Labor Party. Still, Mr. Sharon would likely have to draw on smaller, more right-wing parties to form a government.

Israel's January election will settle for the moment which direction Israel will take in its dealings with the Palestinians. But overall, Israeli society remains deeply split between those leaning right and those leaning left - a situation that lends itself to unstable governments and at best tentative steps toward peace.