Sharon's Party Still Leads Israeli Polls

The Palestinian election victory by the militant group Hamas seems to have had limited impact on upccoming Israeli elections. Four weeks before the vote, ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party (headed by interim PM Ehud Olmert) holds a comfortable lead in polls.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. In Israel, campaigning is well under way. Voters head to the polls at the end of the month. They'll pick a new prime minister. After the Hamas victory in last month's Palestinian elections, a lot of people wondered how that would affect the Israeli elections. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Just days after the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu debuted his new campaign slogan. Netanyahu: Strong in the Face of Hamas, was plastered across buses and billboards throughout Israel. In a recent speech, the former Prime Minister said the Hamas victory is dangerous for Israel.

Mr. BENJAIN NETANYAHU (Former Prime Minister, Israel): Israel is right now surrounded by three Iranian positions. One, Hezbollah, in the north, with about 10,000 rockets. One, in the south, in Gaza. And now, if we don't prevent it, a Hamas mega-state in the east. And so, I think it's very important to prevent Israel from being surrounded. It's important that we surround Hamas, and that they not surround us.

GRADSTEIN: But, at least so far, Netanyahu's scare tactics don't seem to be working. Uri Dromi, of the Israel Democracy Institute, says most Israelis do not see major differences between the incoming Palestinian government headed by Hamas, and the current leadership of Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. URI DROMI (Israel Democracy Institute): While some people try to scare us with the Hamas, most Israelis, I think, don't have any hopes with the Palestinians to start with. So, for them, it's not so important if it's the Hamas, or it's the Fattah, or somebody else. The sense of no partnership, I think, is preventing here.

GRADSTEIN: Dromi says Netanyahu, who was prime minister in the 1990s, is now a very unpopular figure in Israel. And that's borne out by the latest pre-election polls. They show Netanyahu's Likud party will win just 16 seats in the 120 seat Parliament. The leftist center labor party is projected to win 19 seats, the same number it holds in the outgoing Parliament. The centrist Kadima party, founded by Ariel Sharon and lead by Ehud Olmert since Sharon's stroke in early January, has dipped in the polls, but is still expected to win about 40 seats.

Sharon's unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza strip last summer bolstered his popularity among Israelis. Despite Sharon's denials, many here believe he was heading toward a similar pullback from parts of the West Bank. Ehud Olmert, who was close to Sharon both personally and professionally, is seen as the logical successor to Sharon, who remains comatose in a Jerusalem hospital. Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, says the Hamas victory has deepened the desire of many Israelis for a permanent separation from the Palestinians.

Professor MOSHE HALBERTAL (Philosophy, Hebrew University): With the rise of the Hamas (unintelligible), the cultural, psychological separation has deepened. So, they are here, we are there, there is no shared Western or democratic or pluralistic or semi-pseudo secular life that we share.

GRADSTEIN: Halbertal says there's a growing Israeli consensus for more unilateral moves to bolster separation from the Palestinians. He also says there's a broad agreement that it's in Israel's interest to withdraw from at least part of the West Bank. And the candidate most likely to do that, they believe, is not Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, but Ehud Olmert of Kadima. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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