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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Israelis back Sharon
Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Sharon's policies and defiance of the US may boost his popularity
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By Tarik Kafala
BBC News Online

Though governments around the world have strongly condemned the Israeli military operations in the West Bank, Israeli public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of the attacks.

An opinion poll carried out for BBC radio's Today Programme shows that nearly 86% of Israelis support the current Israeli Defense Force operations.

With this kind of backing, Mr Sharon appears willing to risk Washington's ire by ignoring increasingly firm demands from President George Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell for an end to military operations.

As Mr Powell launched his tour of the Middle East, Mr Sharon made a defiant speech before the Israeli parliament in which he insisted the military offensive would continue as long as it took to achieve its goals.

Mixed message

Though the current military operations get massive support, the same sample of Israelis was split almost down the middle when asked if they agreed with the statement: "There can be no military solution to the conflict".

And in another apparently contradictory signal, though Mr Sharon's policies seem to be very popular, he is less so.

Asked who they would vote for if there were an election tomorrow, 28% of the 500 Israelis polled said they would back Mr Sharon.

His rival for the leadership of the Israeli right-wing, Binyamin Netanyahu also got 28% backing from those questioned.

David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Report, says this may represent a rise in Mr Sharon's ratings consistent with the popularity of the current Israeli army operations.

"Sharon is back up there in your poll, equal with Netanyahu who is widely perceived to be the most popular politician in Israel - and Netanyahu has not had the burden of office on his shoulders," Mr Horovitz told BBC News Online.

Left silenced

The Israeli mainstream left, centred around the Labor Party, got very little support in the poll.

The likely Labor candidates in any election, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Avraham Burg, got 11% backing between them.

The BBC's Michael Williams reports from Jerusalem that the poll suggests the Israeli left-wing has been almost silenced by the fighting, and by the obvious public desire to see violence met with violence.

In the current situation the call of Peace Now, Israel's leading peace group, for Israel to "retreat from the occupied territories, evacuate the settlements and put up a border between Israel and the Palestinians while returning to the negotiating table towards a firm peace agreement" does not appear to have widespread support.

Stopping the bombers

The stated objective for Israel's current operations in the West Bank is to "destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure".

There has not been a suicide bombing in Israel since the 31 March when 12 Israelis were killed in a Haifa restaurant - a fact that might appear to vindicate Mr Sharon's policy.

However, many analysts say that this cannot last, and suicide attacks are likely to commence soon after Israeli soldiers pull back - perhaps with a renewed vigour in retaliation for the Israeli operations.

The Jerusalem Report's David Horovitz says that Israelis are well aware that the suicide bombings are likely to resume, but they also found the situation where they were too afraid to leave their homes intolerable and demanded that something be done.

The perceived success of the operations in stopping suicide bombings may even have increased the numbers of Israelis who believe that the conflict can be solved militarily, Mr Horovitz argues.

"Mr Sharon would have come in for greater criticism in Israel if he was perceived to have given in to US demands and ended the operations before they had achieved their aim," Mr Horovitz said.

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