- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) — The Israeli army sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Monday to prevent suicide bombs and other attacks by Islamic militants from disrupting the voting in Tuesday's election, a military source said.

The last two weeks of the election campaign have gone without bomb attempts, but Israeli press reported that security troops opened fire on a donkey cart in the West Bank on Sunday which was packed with explosives and blew up with an enormous explosion.

Analysts forecast a plurality for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party of between 32 and 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, with Labor, his political rival gaining 19 seats.

But the fastest growing group is expected to be the secular, right-wing Shinui party. Late polls indicate that it could gain as many as 15 seats (up from six in the outgoing legislation) and challenge Labor for the second place.

Not for the first time polls reveal the 6 million voters — including 10 percent Arab Israelis — to be massively undecided about what they want out of the new government. Despite almost three years of conflict with the Palestinians, for example, a surprisingly large number of Israelis still accept the idea of a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel, according to analysts.

However, analysts don't expect Sharon to soften his approach to the Palestinians, insisting that no negotiation is possible while the violence against Israeli civilians persists. As if to drive this point home, the election campaign closed to the sound of Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships penetrating deep into the Gaza Strip and attacking targets that could manufacture rockets and other weapons. The deepest Israeli incursion into Gaza in the past two years resulted in 13 Palestinian deaths.

Sharon has said he accepts the latest Middle East peace plan — the so-called road map culminating in the establishment of a Palestinian state, with secure borders — but with conditions. The specific details of the road map have yes to be made known to the public — as do Sharon's conditions.

The election is expected to be a prelude to a lengthy political wheeling and dealing to form a coalition government. On the peace front, much will depend on the kind of government Sharon manages to cobble together.

Though Sharon is on record as saying that he would prefer a coalition of national unity with Labor, an Israeli political source says his behind-the-scenes approaches to Labor have been repulsed by his main political opponent, the dovish Amram Mitzna.

If the Labor party sticks to this line after the elections, Sharon faces the prospect of making a complex series of deals with Shinui and presumably one or more of the religious parties that habitually play a pivotal role in Israeli governments.

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