As Israelis buried their dead following back-to-back Palestinian suicide bombings Sunday in Tel Aviv that killed 22 bystanders (seven of them foreign workers) political campaign commercials began running on Israel TV Tuesday night and analysts wondered how the terror attack and new political scandals would impact the Jan. 28 national election.
The newest scandal involves Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself and his two sons. And because an investigation into allegations surrounding a $1.5 million loan to the Sharon family will not be completed before Election Day, Israelis will go to the polls with a cloud hanging over the prime minister.
The allegation rocking the Likud was first reported Tuesday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Sharon and his sons, Gilad and Omri, are suspected by Justice Ministry officials of "allegedly receiving bribes, fraud and breach of trust, as well as deceiving the state comptroller and police" about a $1.5 million loan to serve as collateral from Cyril Kern, a South African businessman, a year ago.
The leader of the opposition Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, pounced on the charges and demanded that Sharon either explain what happened or step down, just as the prime minister forced fellow Likud Party member Naomi Blumenthal to do recently when she refused to cooperate with police investigating vote-buying charges by Likud activists.
"Sharon's behavior makes him illegitimate and unfit to head the country at this time of crisis," charged Mitzna, who earlier referred to Sharon as "the Godfather" and his sons as "the Family."
But Sharon aides insisted that the transaction was legal and that the businessman, who they said was a longtime personal friend of Sharon who does no business with Israel, was repaid with interest after Sharon was able to secure a bank mortgage on his farm. The loan was needed to repay illegal campaign contributions Sharon received in his losing 1999 bid for Likud chairman.
Zalman Shoval, a banker and adviser to Sharon, said the allegations "look like a canard; they are not serious. ... Even looking at the facts that Haaretz presents there is nothing illegal."
But Yuli Tamir, a Labor campaign official, told Israel Army Radio that when questioned by police about the loan from the businessman, Sharon said he did not know the details and referred them to his son, Omri, who refused to answer police questions.
A poll released Wednesday by Israel Army Radio showed that 31 percent of Israelis believe Sharon unworthy of serving as prime minister in view of the possibility that he misled investigators or concealed information regarding the loan. Another 46 percent said they saw no reason for Sharon to resign.
And late Wednesday, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein indicated his investigation into the allegations would not be completed until after the election. Speaking on Israel Radio, he said also that the leak about the investigation could harm the probe and that it was obviously done for political purposes.
Police reportedly plan to interview Omri Sharon, who is a candidate on the Likud Knesset list, in connection with the voter-buying allegations. And a Labor commercial is focusing on allegations that Gilad Sharon received a lucrative consulting job for a contractor while his father was foreign minister.
"It's finally reaching the prime minister," Colette Avital, a Labor Party Knesset member, said of the scandals. "That is what we expected for a long time, and I think it will affect him."
Political analyst Joseph Alpher noted that polls of Israeli voters showed last Friday that Likud had lost nearly one-fourth of its strength since the vote-buying allegations first surfaced. A poll in Haaretz showed Likud winning 31 seats instead of the 41 found in polls three weeks ago. It now has 19 seats. But the Labor Party, which now has 25 seats, has not benefited by the disaffection of Likud supporters and is expected to win only 21 or 22 seats, Alpher said.
The party that has benefited most from the scandal is the secular Shinui Party led by Tommy Lapid, which polls predict may win 14 seats: double its present number. Avital said Labor must convince voters gravitating to Shinui that their vote would be better cast if it went to Labor because only Labor or Likud have a real chance of forming the next government. But Shinui has expanded on its original platform of opposing the way the ultra-Orthodox parties use the political process in gaining economic aid for their constituents. It now addresses issues of democracy and political reform, messages that seem to be resonating with voters.
But it was security concerns that took center stage at the beginning of the week after the worst suicide bombing, in terms of fatalities, since the Passover hotel attack that killed 29. And those concerns were reflected in the campaign ads of the various parties that began airing on television.
"Usually when terrorists attack, it helps the right-wing parties, but it also makes the other parties move to the right, too," said Gideon Doron, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and a former aide to the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. "They all change their rhetoric and you could expect Labor to have a stronger, more aggressive" campaign message.
In his first radio ad, Sharon, who heads the Likud Party, sounded a theme similar to the one he intoned when he was first elected in 2001: "I'm the one who can bring peace and security. I can give solutions."
He offered no specifics but has said he would not negotiate with Palestinians until Yasir Arafat was replaced as leader of the Palestinian people and there was a complete cessation of Palestinian violence that has claimed the lives of more than 700 Israelis in the last 27 months.
The first commercial by Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna promised to erect a fence between Israel and the West Bank in a bid to keep out Palestinian terrorists. A fence around the Gaza Strip has succeeded in preventing infiltration of terrorists, and a fence around Israel proper would be part of a plan for unilateral separation if unconditional negotiations with the Palestinians failed.
The Labor ad asks why Sharon has been slow in building the fence, which Sharon at first opposed and then reluctantly agreed to when public opinion polls showed the country behind its construction.
Avital said Mitzna favors erecting the fence only if proposed negotiations with the Palestinians fail to achieve a peace agreement in a year.
"The fence is the alternative if there is no way to restart the negotiations," she said.
Alpher, the political analyst, said he believes it would be a mistake for Mitzna to focus on his plan to restart talks with the Palestinians, including Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
"I think he made a huge mistake by thinking he could talk of the fence and dismantling [some] settlements ... and at the same time renew negotiations with Arafat, which is a total non-starter" with Israelis, he said. "The first idea resounds well with the public, the second does not. If Mitzna understands this, it would improve his chances. And this terrorist attack might help him by proving his point."
Sunday's suicide bombing (the first in six weeks) served to again push security to the top of the agenda in the minds of Israelis. But the political corruption scandal is not far behind, followed by the economy, which in 2002 was the worst since 1953, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
In response to the bombing, the Jewish Agency announced that it was giving $2,000 to all new immigrants who were hurt in the attack. The money comes from a special fund for terror victims collected in the U.S. by the United Jewish Communities.
The government of Israel responded to the bombing by firing missiles into a sheet metal factory in Gaza City it claimed was used to make weapons, and it continued to hunt down and kill terrorists. It also closed Palestinian universities in Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron that it said fomented Palestinian terrorism. In addition, it barred Palestinians from holding a meeting this week to discuss formulating a Palestinian constitution; prevented Palestinians under the age of 35 from leaving the West Bank or Gaza Strip (including those with work permits in Israel); confined senior Palestinian officials to their cities; imposed a blockade along the Gaza coast, forbidding fishing in the Mediterranean; and barred a Palestinian delegation chosen by Arafat from flying to London next week for talks on internal reforms.
British authorities protested Israelís decision, but Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, suggested that it would have been pointless to allow the Palestinian delegation to fly to London because the bombing was carried out by the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, an arm of Arafatís own Fatah organization.
"So on the one hand you have Arafat's own branch of the PLO engaged in terrorism against Israelis and on the other you have the British expecting Arafat to approve a reform process based on the same elites that are involved in terrorism against us," Gold said.
He noted that although Israel has accepted the Middle East peace plan envisioned by President George W. Bush, "a couple of key players in the international community want to short-circuit it, such as with this proposal for a reform process before you have essentially removed the terrorist component."
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