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Israelis, voting tomorrow, tilt toward hard line

The contest features two former generals with opposing views on the peace process.

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Prime Minister Ehud Barak has staked his political career on pursuing negotiations with Palestinians. Opposition leader Ariel Sharon has made a career out of taking a hard line against them.

In elections tomorrow, Israelis will choose between the two men and their starkly opposing visions. Barring a sudden change, polls show voters overwhelmingly picking Mr. Sharon.

The contest between these two former army generals, say some commentators, is a choice between war and peace. Indeed, a victory by the hard-line Sharon would put the Arab world on edge, reshape Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and could prompt another flare-up of violence in the Palestinian territories. But for Israeli voters, reeling from a string of bombings and deadly attacks, the only issue of importance is domestic security, making this election a referendum on the peace process, security, and how best to achieve it.

"People just want to feel safe in their own homes and cars," says Margot Levine, an American-Israeli supporter of Sharon standing at a rain- soaked corner in downtown Jerusalem, where competing plastic banners tout the candidates. Referring to the drive-by shooting of an Israeli doctor last week, she adds, "We have to be tough."

Across the street, Barak supporter Udi Geffen says his only disagreement with Sharon backers is over their approach. "We all want the same thing, an end to conflict, but we have different ways of getting there," he says, hunched under a blue nylon poncho. "We believe in negotiation. [Sharon supporters] want to use a clenched fist."

But it seems that Israelis are yearning for a tougher approach, with polls giving Sharon leads of 20 percent and more over Barak. Ironically, Sharon can give some thanks to Barak for his commanding advantage.

In 1999, Barak came to office promising peace and has bitterly disappointed Israelis for not coming through on that pledge. Now, instead of peace, Israelis are dealing with an uprising that has claimed 384 lives, most of them Palestinians, since Sept. 28.

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