Sharon widening lead over rivals ahead of Israeli elections

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has widened his lead over his rivals in upcoming national elections following a suicide bombing at an Israeli mall this week, according to new public opinion polls published Friday. The Yediot Ahronot daily said Sharon's new Kadima Party would capture 39 of 120 seats in parliament, up from 34 seats in a poll the previous week. That would put him in a strong position to form a ruling coalition supporting his aim of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

The dovish Labor Party would take 23 seats, down from 27, and Likud, the hard-line party that Sharon recently quit, fell to 13 seats from 16. Sharon left the Likud last month, saying formation of the centrist Kadima bloc would give him more leeway to pursue a peace deal after the March 28 elections.

This week's suicide bombing appeared to bolster support for Sharon, a former general who has strong security credentials with the public. Labor's leader, Amir Peretz, is campaigning on a platform of social and economic issues and is perceived as being inexperienced with security matters. The Yediot poll, conducted by the Dahaf Institute, surveyed 510 people and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

The poll signaled a softening of support for Peretz, a union leader who won a surprise victory over Labor stalwart Shimon Peres in party primaries last month. Support for Peretz has gradually dwindled since then. In an interview with the Maariv daily, Peretz said there was no reason to panic.

"I don't feel like I have lost any momentum," he said. "There are definitely difficulties in building party infrastructure, and due to the nature of things, there will be much criticism and that's OK." He said that the latest polls following a suicide bombing and new tensions with Iran, widely perceived as Israel's biggest threat, and noted that the campaign hasn't begun in earnest yet, reports the AP. N.U.

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