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Israeli Prime Minister's Popularity Drops Amid New Scandal - 2004-03-05

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's popularity has dropped to a three-year low, according to an opinion poll published on Friday. The results come as the prime minister is embroiled in another potential scandal -- this time over negotiating a prisoner swap with Lebanese guerrillas earlier this year. A poll published in the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, indicates that 57 percent of Israelis do not consider Prime Minister Sharon trustworthy.

That's the lowest standing the Prime Minister has had since he first took office in 2001. The slump comes amid yet another scandal.

This past week there was increasing furor over a prisoner swap with the Hizobollah guerrilla group in late January that included the release of controversial Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum.

The accusation in the Israeli daily Maariv was that Mr. Sharon worked out the deal because of his ties to Mr. Tannenbaum's former father-in-law, who helped manage Mr. Sharon's farm some thirty years ago.

Mr. Sharon vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said the accusations were part of a vicious campaign against him.

The Prime Minister is already embroiled in two other scandals, and in being investigated for allegations involving bribery and an illegal campaign loan. Mr. Sharon has denied that he did anything wrong in either case.

All the same, according to the latest opinion poll, which involved questioning 501 Israelis, 53 percent said the Prime Minister should resign in light of the various scandals.

The Prime Minister's latest troubles come as he is trying to garner support for his plan to dismantle most or perhaps all of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, and withdraw from the area. He has also talked of dismantling some settlements in the West Bank -- all as part of a disengagement plan he wants to implement if negotiations with the Palestinians continue to go nowhere.

Mr. Sharon faces some harsh opposition to his proposals, notably among settler groups and rightwing and nationalist political factions.

Israel's main backer, the United States, has not rejected the plan, but has expressed reservations about any unilateral moves. Washington would prefer a negotiated settlement along the lines of the internationally backed Road Map peace plan.

Israeli security officials have told news organizations that Israel will reassure the United States that there will be no unilateral withdrawal from Gaza before the U.S. presidential elections in November. This is apparently meant to calm Washington's fears that a unilateral withdrawal could create a power vacuum in Gaza that could result in chaos and heightened instability as U.S. voters prepare to go to the polls.