Sharon scandal election
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Israel's Sharon Stirs Controversy with TV Speech
Fri Jan 10, 4:06 PM ET Add World - Reuters to My Yahoo!
By Timothy Heritage
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites)'s scandal-plagued election campaign faced mounting problems on Friday after a news conference in which he denied wrongdoing and assailed his main rival was yanked off the air.
Israeli media slammed Sharon over Thursday's televised appearance, abruptly cut off in an unprecedented move by a judge overseeing electoral procedure who said the prime minister's political comments ran foul of broadcast regulations.
But it was not clear whether the controversy over a $1.5 million dollar loan from a South Africa-based businessman to one of Sharon's sons would in the long run reduce or rally support for the right-wing leader in the January 28 election.
The scandal has in the past week sharply cut the formidable lead his Likud party has been enjoying in opinion polls over the main opposition center-left Labour Party, led by Amram Mitzna.
The Maariv newspaper said Sharon "with almost no choice, is begging today for the voter's ballot slip, and placing his personality and history on the guillotine."
"If he drops in the (opinion) polls at the beginning of next week, this means that the public -- not only the left and the media, as Sharon contends -- wants to bring down the blade," it said.
The choice voters make between Sharon and Mitzna could determine the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sharon favors a strong military approach against a Palestinian uprising for independence. Mitzna offers an unconditional resumption of peace talks.
In the latest violence, Israeli troops killed a 16-year-old Palestinian stone-thrower in the West Bank's Aida refugee camp Friday and wounded two others, witnesses and medics said.
Israeli military sources said there had been no clashes inside Aida, but that an army unit fired on masked Palestinians who had attacked it with rocks and firebombs nearby.
At least 1,766 Palestinians and 692 Israelis have been killed since the uprising for independence started in September 2000. The Israeli army has tightened its grip on the West Bank since two suicide bombers killed 22 people in Tel Aviv on Sunday
The army also shut down three West Bank liaison offices where Palestinian security officers once consulted with Israeli counterparts. It called their continued operation pointless.
The District Coordinating Office in the West Bank city of Jericho was the only one still functioning under interim peace deals shattered by the violence.
OPINION POLLS CRUCIAL
Before the news conference was cut off, Sharon charged that Labour and its supporters had, for political motives, spread "vicious gossip" about him, his family and the Likud.
Sharon denied any wrongdoing in connection with the $1.5 million loan that his son, Gilad, received from Cape Town businessman Cyril Kern, a long-time family friend. Israeli law bans political funding from abroad.
The money was used as collateral to help Sharon repay what Israeli authorities determined had been an improper foreign contribution to his 1999 campaign to be elected Likud leader.
"I didn't know exactly where the money came from," he said, pledging to answer all questions in a police probe now underway.
At the news conference, Sharon lashed out at Mitzna, mayor of the northern city of Haifa, and accused him of shady links with Israeli businessmen, allegations Labour officials deny.
Mitzna, in London following talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites), dismissed Sharon's charges as a "deviation from all acceptable norms," a spokesman said.
The decision to pull the plug on Sharon's prime-time speech was an embarrassment for him three weeks before an election which until days ago he had seemed on course to win easily.
Election commission chairman Mishael Heshin, a supreme court judge, accused Sharon of using the speech to campaign in violation of election rules which strictly limit air time.
Three newspaper opinion surveys conducted after the loan scandal broke this week showed Likud winning between 27 and 30 seats -- down from as many as 41 in one previous poll -- in the 120-member parliament.
The polls indicated Sharon could still form a right-wing coalition controlling 61 parliamentary seats.
But a narrow majority could lead Sharon to seek a broader coalition including centrist and left-wing partners likely to push for a softer line toward the Palestinians.