Israelis Losing Faith In Sharon

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pauses during a meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, unseen, at his Jerusalem office Monday March 1, 2004. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty) AP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's credibility dropped to the lowest level in three years and a majority of Israelis want him to resign, according to a poll published Friday, and an Israeli newspaper as troops sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid new warnings of attacks by Palestinian militants.

The closure was imposed for the duration of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which ends Monday. Such closures, routine during holidays, idle thousands of Palestinian laborers who have jobs in Israel.

Purim normally brings Israelis onto the streets to celebrate, but the holiday has been overshadowed by fears of terrorism.

"It's difficult. You really have to think about what you're doing, where you're going," Larry Herzekow, a former resident of Denver, told CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. "You're cautious and you're careful."

"Unfortunately, Palestinian terrorists have a long track record of turning Jewish holidays into 'open season' on Israelis," said David Baker in Sharon's office.

Later in the day, troops removed some roadblocks but remained on alert and continued inspecting vehicles.

Also Friday, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy died of wounds sustained in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City last week, officials at Gaza's Shifa Hospital said, identifying him as Moutaz Ashiraf from the Jebiliya refugee camp. His death brought to four the number of Palestinians killed in the attack. The other three were members of the violent Islamic Jihad group.

Israeli police have arrested a Jewish militant on charges of targeting Arabs with bombs in the northern port city of Haifa, reports Berger.

Police say the 22-year old Israeli confessed to planting nine bombs in Haifa, targeting Israeli Arabs. There were no serious injuries, though one bomb exploded under the car of an Arab member of parliament and another damaged a mosque. The suspect, Eliran Golan, was allegedly planning attacks against two other Arab legislators. Police say the motive was revenge: most of the bombs were planted after Palestinian terrorist attacks.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have threatened revenge for recent Israeli air strikes. On Friday, a homemade rocket fired from Gaza hit a parking lot outside a supermarket in the Israeli border town of Sderot. The rocket damaged several nearby stores, but caused no injuries.

Also in Gaza, about 1,000 Palestinians stoned the Palestinian police headquarters where four suspected rapists are being held. Police fired in the air to disperse the crowd and three people were wounded, hospital officials said.

In other developments, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided not to withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip before U.S. presidential elections in November and will brief U.S. officials on his position during a trip to Washington next week, a security official said on condition of anonymity.

Israel has said it would withdraw from much of Gaza and parts of the West Bank if peace talks remain frozen in coming months. The United States has not rejected the plan outright, but has expressed reservations about unilateral actions. The U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan calls for a negotiated agreement.

Earlier this week, Dov Weisglass, a senior Sharon aide, discussed the proposed withdrawal with top U.S. officials. The Maariv daily said Friday that Weisglass was told the Bush administration would not like to see a withdrawal before the U.S. election because of concerns of growing instability in Gaza. However, Sharon adviser Assaf Shariv said Friday that no dates for a possible withdrawal were raised during the meetings with U.S. officials.

Friday's poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily indicated that Sharon's approval rating is at its lowest since he became prime minister in early 2001, an apparent reflection of the growing number of scandals to which he has been linked.

Earlier this week, a newspaper suggested that favoritism played a role in Sharon's handling of a prisoner swap between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. The Maariv daily said a former business partner of Sharon was the ex-father-in-law of Hezbollah captive Elhanan Tannenbaum, a confessed drug dealer and indebted gambler released in the contentious deal. Sharon said he hadn't spoken to the business partner for decades, and that he didn't know of the man's ties to Tannenbaum.

This time, Sharon's hawkish allies are not defending him, reports Berger. They're angry about his plan to dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip.

In the Dahaf poll in Yediot, 57 percent of 501 respondents said Sharon was not a trustworthy prime minister, up from 51 percent in a February poll. At the beginning of his first term in 2001, just over 20 percent said he was not to be trusted.

For the first time, a majority of respondents — 53 percent — also said Sharon should resign as prime minister, while 43 percent said he should stay on. In a February poll, 46 percent said Sharon should resign, and 51 percent said he should remain prime minister.

The survey had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.
  • Dan Collins

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