Barak appeals to Israeli Arabs
Barak, Sharon enter final days before critical election
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reached out Sunday to Arab Israelis at his last Cabinet meeting before voters go to the polls to decide if he stays in office.
"As prime minister, I take responsibility for all that happens in this country, including the events when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed," said Barak.
"In the name of the government and myself, I express my deep sadness for the death of the Arab citizens."
The appeal came as many Israeli Arabs -- who represent between 12 percent and 13 percent of Israeli voters and who have supported Barak heavily in the past -- are threatening to stay away from the polls in Tuesday's election. Arab voters have expressed dissatisfaction at Barak's handing of the current round of violence and his slowness to express regret over the killing of the Arab Israeli citizens.
Labor Party candidate Barak already is trailing his rival from the conservative Likud party, former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, by up to 20 percent in some polls. Sharon got a boost Sunday when rabbis from two Ultra-Orthodox religious parties urged their members to vote for him.
The Shas Party and the Council of Torah Sages, both of whom have had trouble striking deals with Barak on narrow issues of interest to them, endorsed Sharon, although the Torah Sages did not mention Sharon by name.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews represent 8 percent of Israeli voters and normally follow the direction of their rabbis.
Barak's coalition eroding, polls show
The Torah Sages have been pressing Sharon to agree to the extension of a law giving religious students military deferments, but Sharon said he had not made any deals with the group.
"I have not and will not sign agreement with parties before the elections," he said, adding that he was "glad to get support from any sector of society" and repeating his pledge to form a national unity government.
Both Sharon and Barak stayed off the campaign trail Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. After the Sabbath, Barak traveled to Kiryat Shmona, appealing to voters there to give him extra time to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. But Saturday night in Jerusalem, only about a thousand people turned out in bad weather to support Barak.
CNN Political Analyst Bill Schneider said data from several polls continued to show that Barak is behind because of eroding support from his traditional base of supporters on the left wing. Polling numbers show that the turnout, which normally runs as high as 90 percent in most Israeli elections, could be as low as 70 percent.
The data show that secular Jews are disillusioned with Barak's attempts to strike a peace deal while Israeli Arabs are furious with Barak over his handling of the last four months of violence.
But Israeli Arabs are not alone among those who appear to be turning their backs on Barak: Russian emigrants, who make up 18 percent of Israeli voters, voted heavily for the prime minister in 1999, but they appear likely to back Sharon on Tuesday by up to 60 percent.
Barak told CNN that Israelis may still be "unripe" to accept the concessions he has wanted to make, but he asserted he has "defined the question" and predicted a final peace agreement will be along the lines of the deal he has been trying to negotiate.
Clashes continue in Palestinian territories
Sharon, who has refused to give media interviews prior to the election, has said he wants to form a unity government if he wins, including all parties. However, Barak has said he would not join what he called an "extremist" government.
If the Labor Party refuses to join a unity government and Sharon has to rely on his traditional allies on the right, Sharon is likely to have only a narrow majority in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The violence that has hamstrung peace efforts for months continued Sunday in the Palestinian territories. Israeli troops reported killing a Palestinian who they said was trying to infiltrate Israel in southern Gaza at Kissufim.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society also reported the death of a Palestinian in that area. The incident followed a day in which the Palestinian Red Crescent said six Palestinians were wounded in a series of incidents in Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Sha'ath said in an interview on Palestine Radio that "the region is going to enter a new period on Tuesday. His (Sharon's) history is known, but the future is not." Earlier, Shaath appealed to Israeli voters to cast their votes for peace.
On September 29, Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount -- one of the holiest places for both Jews and Muslims -- helped set off a round of violence that has so far killed more than 400 people, most of them Palestinians.
Sharon said his visit had "unmasked" the Palestinians, who he said do not want peace. But political observers said Sharon also unmasked Israelis who are showing they are not willing to go along with the concessions Barak has been offering to get a deal with the Palestinians.
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