On Expected Victory Glide, Israel's Likud Is Lurching

Times Staff Writer

On a recent drizzly night, an irate political advisor strode into a police station with a startling complaint. He'd been harassed and followed, Lior Horev said, and his boss, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had been wiretapped by police.

At once, Israel reacted. Police issued a statement calling Horev's complaint "wild imagination and empty statements." Analysts in the morning newspapers dismissed the incident as a clumsy bid for attention. "An insult to one's intelligence," wrote Sima Kadmon in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

Eager to distance their boss from derision, aides told reporters that Sharon knew nothing of his advisor's allegations. The prime minister supports the police department, they said, and was annoyed by the late-night spectacle. And just like that, another act in the Likud Party's carnivalesque campaign season was over.

Likud's tumultuous campaign began with a now-notorious primary election in December, when a 27-year-old cocktail waitress drew more votes than the mayor of Jerusalem. Since then, Israel has watched the ruling party lurch through a string of scandals and embarrassments on what was expected to be an easy glide to victory in the general elections next Tuesday.

Eleven people, including party staff, activists and a deputy minister, have been interrogated in a probe of suspected vote-buying and corruption. Both of the prime minister's sons are under investigation for financial work they did on behalf of their father. Early this month, the imbroglio finally reached Sharon: The 74-year-old prime minister is being investigated for fraud and breach of trust after the family accepted a $1.5-million loan from an old friend who lives in South Africa.

Changing Visage

"Sharon was very relaxed, but you can see from his face now that he's very angry, very agitated, very tough," Yoram Peri, head of Tel Aviv University's Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society, said last week. "He has a lot of tics. He's raising his voice. He understands it's a dangerous situation."

Sharon is still poised to lead his party to victory, but it's been a damaging campaign. The task of forging a coalition in a parliament fractured by politics and religion will probably be complicated by the ongoing probes.

The Likud saga is just a piece of a shifting political landscape. Over little more than a decade, Israel has called five national elections and tinkered repeatedly with its voting system. Polls show that the opposition Labor Party has failed to benefit from its traditional rival's losses. Instead, the secular Shinui Party has been fattened by Likud's troubles, in a hint that the old tug of war between two dominant parties has been replaced -- at least temporarily -- by a more fragmentary rivalry.

Electoral prospects looked bright for Likud just over a month ago when the party gathered in Tel Aviv to rank its candidates in a primary election described by the newspaper Haaretz as "a cross between a Turkish bazaar, a Nigerian riot and a Hamas funeral in Gaza."

Party Whistle-Blowers

As soon as the votes were tallied, the outcry began, as Likud candidates who landed low on the list became whistle-blowers. They told seamy tales of votes offered up for cash, for favors and for free nights in chain hotels.

With members of his party quitting and being rounded up for questioning, Sharon was under pressure to show his outrage. On New Year's Day, the prime minister fired the deputy infrastructure minister for refusing to cooperate with police. When asked how she had placed ninth on the Likud list of candidates for parliament, Naomi Blumenthal had kept quiet.

"Refusing to respond to police questions is an intolerable and inappropriate act that undermines not just the person being interrogated but also an entire movement," Sharon wrote in a letter to Blumenthal.

It wasn't long before his words came back to haunt him. Days later, a shadowy source slipped documents to Haaretz indicating that Sharon and his two sons were under investigation on suspicion of fraud and lying to the police.

Forced to pay back illegal campaign funds, the prime minister's sons had accepted a hefty loan from an old army friend of their father's. When questioned last year, the paper reported, Sharon told investigators that the money had come from a mortgage on the family ranch.

When the news hit, some Likud officials quietly called for Sharon's resignation. Instead, the man known as "the Bulldozer" made a fist-pounding appearance on television. His sons had never told him about the loan, Sharon said. In language so violent he was knocked off the air for breaking propaganda laws, he blamed the media and his political opponents for the scrape.

In his lengthy and often controversial career, Sharon has been wounded and widowed, implicated in the massacre of refugees in Lebanon by Christian allies and banned from being defense minister. But he's always managed to come back. Amid the violence of the current intifada, the prime minister cast himself as a centrist and rose to dominate Israeli politics.

In the last few years, Sharon carefully crafted a gentler image, but analysts say that persona has been eroded by Likud's woes. The prime minister began the campaign cavorting with his grandchildren on television; now he is caricatured in political ads as a Sicilian Mafioso.

"He wants to finish as a statesman, not as a politician or a general," said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "But in a way, this is classic Sharon. There are things in his personality he can't control."

The Sharon investigation begat more investigations: Likud leaders met to consider whether the elections judge was at fault for pulling the plug on the prime minister's televised harangue. And the attorney general launched a hunt for the source of the leak about the loan. Last week, the Supreme Court barred an Israeli intelligence agent from helping identify the tipster.

In the midst of the upheaval, Labor leader Amram Mitzna said his party would refuse to cooperate with a Sharon coalition after the elections.

A terse Sharon brushed aside the announcement as "not serious," and Likud went back to its campaign. After all, party leaders reminded reporters, the Israeli agenda is still dominated by issues of security and Palestinian relations. And in war, they argued, Israelis still regard Sharon as Israel's best chance.

"Even if some of them don't like Sharon personally, they'll vote for him by default," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon's office. "Because there are no other alternatives."

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