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Sunday

Israeli Campaign Enters Last Day

Aired February 4, 2001 - 5:02 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: It is now early Monday in Israel, one day before voters elect a new prime minister. Israelis face a difficult choice between incumbent Ehud Barak and hard-line front- runner Ariel Sharon. It is also a referendum on the Jewish state's future.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour is in Tel Aviv tonight with more on what;s at stake.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the polls still give Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon a hefty lead over the incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Some polls suggesting as much as 20 percentage points ahead.

Today, Ehud Barak was campaigning. He was also seeking to redeem a key core constituency, Israeli Arabs. He went to meet with some of them and he expressed regret for some incidents earlier on in this intifada. Israeli Arabs are extremely upset, very angry that 13 of their members, 13 Israeli citizens were killed by Israeli police during demonstrations in sympathy with Palestinians. And they were upset that Ehud Barak had taken so long to express regret and remorse.

In any event, he went there today and did so, desperately trying to get their vote. This constituency is saying that it will probably overwhelmingly boycott all put-in spoiled ballots, and Ehud Barak's campaign officials say that it's unlikely without Israeli Arab votes, that he could win the prime minister's office again.

In the meantime, his opponent, Ariel Sharon, has also been on the campaign trail. He today picked up a key endorsement from Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish sector. He also again promised to bring peace, although stuck very, very firm to his tough conditions for any peace and again vowed not to negotiate under conditions of violence.

Now to discuss Ariel Sharon, joining me from Jerusalem is Uzi Benziman, who is a political columnist for "Ha'aretz" newspaper and has also written a biography of Ariel Sharon.

let me first start by asking you this: Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, today said that Ariel Sharon of today is not the Ariel Sharon of 30 years ago. What does that mean, first of all and do you buy that?

UZI BENZIMAN, SHARON BIOGRAPHER: Well, I don't buy that, but what it means is that Sharon is known -- his records shows that he's a man who believes in using force. He's a man when he got chances to operate or to fulfill military commands, somehow the military operation that he was ordered to accomplish ended with a larger scale than was originally planned.

So I believe that what Ehud Olmert is trying to say is don't worry about Sharon. He became a more moderate person than originally we know him. I doubt it.

AMANPOUR: And why do you doubt it? Certainly, his election campaign has portrayed him as now the elder statesman, the sort of gentleman warrior who knows how to make peace. Why do you doubt it? Why do you not think he's changed?

BENZIMAN: Because one had no way to predict what will be the future behavior and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of Sharon only by learning from the past and the past shows us that he's a man who doesn't stop on red lights. More than that, during the intifada, during the recent weeks, he had some negotiation with Ehud Barak in order to establish an unity government, and this was before election were called, and it was leaked in the press and Sharon didn't deny that he suggested to Barak to conquer again Jericho and to kill Muhammad Rahman (ph), who is Arafat's closest associate. So, I hope that Ehud Olmert is right, but I doubt it.

AMANPOUR: There are many people watching this election, observers from outside. We even heard a key United States official, former Secretary of State James Baker, who suggests that perhaps Ariel Sharon would be Nixon going to China. You get what I'm trying to say?

BENZIMAN: Yes. Well, I really hope that this will be the case. We have to bear in mind that Sharon is a practical person. I would even say that he's a fortunist. During his history, he moves from one side of the Israeli arena to the other side. He negotiated with the left back in the '70s, so he may be so.

Even the person, we have to remember, that carried out Menachem Begin's decision to evacuate the northern of Sinai. So, this may be the case. Hopefully, that will be the case, but I still doubt it.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you this: The Arab Israelis are a key constituency here in this election, in any election. Ehud Barak has offered, at least we've been told, he's ready to consider a lot of what the Palestinians have been wanting: a state of their own, a shared capital in Jerusalem, most of the West Bank, all of Gaza.

Ariel Sharon has offered none of that and has basically said that he would not give that. How,then, do you explain the fact that Israeli Arabs a), say that they see no different between Sharon and Barak, and even some who say maybe Sharon will be better for the peace process.

BENZIMAN: I think that the Israeli Arabs attitude toward Barak is mainly because of the domestic problem. Namely, that during demonstrations in the Arab population that we had here back on October, the police retaliated brutally and the Israeli Arab community are angry at that. In regard to Sharon, I never heard that there are Israeli Arabs who believe that Sharon will be more convenient to negotiate with than Barak. It sounds very strange to me.

AMANPOUR: What do you expect will happen if Ariel Sharon wins on Tuesday as the polls indicate? What direction do you think Israel will go in the immediate future?

BENZIMAN: Well, I believe that originally, Sharon will try to fulfill the expectations that he becomes more moderate, and he will give his hand to Palestinian and say, let's talk and make some agreement.

However, he is going to be elected because he portrays much stronger person to the Israeli constituency. The messages that he conveyed today in the campaign are rely upon me. I know how to handle situations. I know how to cope with Arabs, and he will be -- the circumstance also lead him to prove that.

I mean that it's likely that Palestinians will continue with terrorist acts against us, against the Israelis and Sharon will have to act much more forcefully in order to achieve some quiet here and by that, to fulfill his promises to the voters.

AMANPOUR: On that note, thank you very much for joining us. From Jerusalem, Uzi Benziman.

Monday is the last day before the voters go to the polls. There are no official campaigning allowed under law here. However, the candidates will be at various stops. No more campaign commercials on the air 24 hours before the voters go to polls and again, we say that the polls are giving Ariel Sharon a very hefty lead.

I'm Christiane Amanpour, CNN, reporting live from Tel Aviv.

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