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Sharon Favored to Win Israeli Elections - 2003-01-28

For the third time in four-years, Israelis are voting to elect a new parliament. The Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains the clear favorite, in an election that appears to be attracting a low voter turnout.

Mr. Sharon's Likud Party is expected to be stronger after this election. It now has 19 seats in the national parliament and analysts are predicting it will have 33 after the votes are counted.

This would make Likud the largest faction in the 120-seat parliament, but it still would not have enough seats to rule alone.

Mr. Sharon's challenge will be to form a stable coalition with other parties.

But the Labor Party, the second most popular faction, is looming as an obstacle to achieving that goal. Headed by Amram Mitzna, Labor insists it will not join forces with Likud.

The party has taken this stand despite predictions that it will drop from 25 to 18 seats in the parliament.

If Labor holds to this position, Mr. Sharon is likely to have little choice but to forge an alliance with religious and ultra-nationalist factions.

To reduce his dependence on such groups, the prime minister is urging voters to rally behind Likud.

But early trends indicate little enthusiasm for Mr. Sharon's appeal. Election analysts are saying the final voter turnout could be as low as 70 percent.

The election is taking place against a backdrop of continuing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and renewed threats of Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Israel's police commissioner, Shlomo Aharonisky, said up to 30,000 members of the security forces, along with some volunteers, had been deployed across the country to safeguard voters.

As part of the security measures, a ban has been imposed on Palestinians entering Israel from the West Bank or Gaza Strip until Wednesday.