Sharon looks like winning Israeli election, Barak keeps upbeat, while Palestinians dislike both

Israelis began voting today in an election expected to sweep arch-hawk Ariel Sharon to power. Still, incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak insists voters will turn to him at the last minute for the sake of peace. "We don't want even to speculate that he (Sharon) might win. We believe that we can win," Mr. Barak is quoted by Reuters as telling reporters on a Jerusalem street. Opinion polls are united in predicting humiliation for Mr. Barak, who lagged Mr. Sharon by some 20 percentage points. But the 58-year-old Labour party prime minister is upbeat despite the polls and say voters are having second thoughts. Polls opened under sunny skies and will close at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT), when Israeli television exit polls will immediately predict the results. The outcome is expected in the early hours of Wednesday. A Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule that has dominated the two-month campaign is reported to roll on unabated, with overnight gunfire echoing across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians resent what they see as Mr. Barak's harsh repression of the Intifada, or uprising, that has cost at least 382 lives - 318 Palestinians, 52 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs. But they also loathe Mr. Sharon, like Mr. Barak a former general, for a warlike record that includes Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to a massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila. Still, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, secretary general of the Palestinian Authority, told Reuters that Palestinians would negotiate with whoever wins the election, whatever their reservations.

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