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Try as He Might, Sharon Can’t Dodge The Long Shadow of Corruption Probe

JERUSALEM — Although all the major public opinion polls continue to predict an overwhelming Likud victory in the elections January 28, the party’s leadership, as well as its rank and file, are more preoccupied with the daily dose of sordid revelations emanating from the police investigation of the corruption scandal.

Instead of feverish preparation for what appears to be an inevitable triumph, the Likud organization has gone into hiding: Usually verbose ministers are keeping mum, normally energetic activists are staying home and traditionally boisterous Likud campaign rallies are sparsely attended and as animated as a wake.

Prime Minister Sharon and his personal spin-doctors are almost alone in their efforts to counteract the negative media exposure of the Likud’s internal machinations, and to try and offset the advantage gained by the prime minister’s political opponents. Sharon is now casting himself as a latter-day, born-again reformist, launching daily public barrages against his own party’s tainted electoral processes and repeatedly pledging to eradicate all wrongdoers from the party’s Knesset list.

Thus, Sharon was quick to jump on the first high-level Likud functionary implicated in the corruption scandal, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Naomi Blumenthal, who is alleged to have bribed voting members of the Likud Central Committee by inviting them for an overnight stay at Ramat Gan’s swank City Tower hotel. Only minutes after radio reports indicated that Blumenthal had invoked her legal right to silence in her police investigation, the media was preoccupied with urgent news that Sharon intended to sack Blumenthal forthwith. By Tuesday, the prime minister had fired Blumenthal.

Sharon’s office, backed by leading constitutional experts, asserted that while the law may recognize an individual suspect’s right to maintain silence, an elected official who withholds information concerning affairs of public importance cannot go unpunished. Sharon pledged to demote any Likud leader who emulates Blumenthal’s silence.

Still, Sharon’s advisers are concerned that he has also exposed himself to criticism of employing a double standard because his own son, Omri, had also “pleaded the Fifth” in a separate police investigation of Sharon’s finance practices in the 2001 elections. Sharon has been energetically deflecting persistent press reports that link Omri to many of the shady characters and suspect shenanigans in the Likud voting scandal. The latest bombshell involves a bizarre tale of 800 former soldiers of the now-defunct Southern Lebanese Army, now living in Israel, who reportedly were recruited as full-fledged Likud members, despite the fact that they are not Israeli citizens, and who unanimously voted for Sharon in the recent contest for the Likud leadership.

Sharon has repeatedly stressed that Omri, who was himself elected to the 25th slot in the Likud list, “had no connection whatsoever” to any alleged wrongdoing. However, if the premier’s son is ultimately implicated in the scandal, one Sharon adviser said this week, Sharon’s current strong command of the polls could “topple like a house of cards.”

In this context, Sharon’s advisers are increasingly concerned that Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein will not hesitate to allow the police to interrogate Omri Sharon, if and when he is deemed to have been involved. After several years in which he was accused of kowtowing to Sharon and his government, Rubinstein has suddenly assumed a feisty adversarial attitude, which his Likud critics ascribe to the attorney general’s aspiration to be appointed to the Supreme Court. True or not, it was Rubinstein who uncharacteristically ordered the urgent police investigation of corruption in the Likud, despite the sensitive political timing.

It was also Rubinstein who, after a lengthy silence, cautioned the Cabinet this week against indiscriminate assassinations in the fight against Palestinian terrorism. Rubinstein was reacting to press reports indicating that Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had ordered an “increase” in assassinations in the wake of last week’s deadly attack on a paramilitary hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Otniel, which left four Israelis dead. Rubinstein told the Cabinet that assassinations should be employed only as a weapon of last resort. His assistants added that a declared policy of assassinations, even if meant only as a cynical election ploy, could seriously jeopardize Israel’s ongoing battle against European efforts to depict Israel and its leaders as war criminals.

Rubinstein has also played a controversial role in a spate of recent petitions to disqualify various lists from participating in the elections. The attorney general issued a series of recommendations to the Central Elections Committee, urging it to approve or reject petitions based on his reading of the facts of each case. The committee, with a right-wing majority voting on party lines, largely ignored Rubinstein’s recommendations and decided cases mainly on what appeared to be ethnic lines. It approved the candidacy of a reputed leader of the outlawed Kach movement, Baruch Marzel, to run on the rightist Herut Knesset slate, while disallowing the candidacy of Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, a sometime adviser to Yasser Arafat. It was expected to follow Rubinstein’s advice and disqualify Tibi’s former political ally, Azmi Bishara, and his Balad party.

Rubinstein wanted to nix Bishara and Balad because of their alleged support for terrorism and opposition to Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Committee decisions are still subject to approval by the Supreme Court, but prominent Arab figures are already warning that disqualification of the charismatic Bishara could further alienate Israel’s Arab community, leading them to boycott the elections and to increase their support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

Up to now, to the annoyance of Sharon’s advisers, the attack on Otniel, like the news of impending war in Iraq, has succeeded in displacing banner headlines of the Likud scandal for only short periods of time. The press is having a field day with the juicy corruption stories coming out of the police Fraud Division headquarters in the Tel Aviv suburb Bat Yam and is refusing to yield to what Sharon and his advisers describe as the “truly critical and urgent” stories of the day.

Still, strategists in Labor and other parties believe the scandal will dominate the election agenda only until January 15, two weeks before the vote, when Israel’s military brass plans to enter a heightened state of alert in advance of an expected American attack on Iraq. American and other foreign television networks are also scheduling January 15 as the day when they will mount cameras on Tel Aviv’s highest buildings for continuous 24-hour surveillance, just in case Saddam Hussein decides, against all expectations, to launch a preemptive strike and to lob surface-to-surface missiles at Tel Aviv.

Laborites say their party has only two weeks left in which to turn the tables on Sharon and capitalize on the Likud scandal. Labor campaign aides are increasingly agitated by the fact that despite saturation coverage of Likud’s woes, the ruling party has lost only about one-tenth of its power in the polls. More dispiriting to Labor, the slack is being picked up not by Labor, but by the centrist, anti-charedi Shinui party, led by former journalist Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

Labor’s current lackluster performance in the polls has already led to a bout of internal bickering and finger-pointing that quickly reached the press. Critics of Labor leader Amram Mitzna claim he is uninspiring, devoid of charisma and a poor manager of his own election campaign to boot. One disconcerted Labor activist, a close adviser to Mitzna, lamented this week that “if things continue like this, Sharon will be elected prime minister despite the corruption scandal, but Shinui will overtake Labor and become the country’s second largest party.” The Israeli left, he added, might never recover.

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