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Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 19:33 GMT
Sharon weathers Likud voting scandal
Ariel Sharon
Polls say the Likud Party's lead has slipped

A sordid vote-buying scandal in Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud Party probably won't prevent his re-election at the end of the month.

But widely published stories of party activists using bribes and cash to secure places on a list of parliamentary candidates has cut into Likud's once commanding lead.

Likud's misfortunes do not mean the elections will topple the country's right-wing government

A stepped-up military campaign in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has also led to charges that Mr Sharon is taking a tough line to improve his chances at the ballot box.

The most recent opinion poll in the Ha'aretz daily newspaper shows Likud winning 31 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

That is down from 35 seats a week ago and 41 seats three weeks ago.

Another poll in the Ma'ariv newspaper shows Likud winning 34 seats.

Likud weakened

Mr Sharon's vow to expel party members tainted by corruption has done nothing to halt the slide.

Naomi Blumenthal after police questioning (Photo by Moti Kimche of Ha'aretz)
Naomi Blumenthal after police questioning (Photo by Moti Kimche of Ha'aretz)

He has already fired a junior cabinet minister, Naomi Blumenthal, for refusing to co-operate with police investigators examining how she managed to reach an unexpectedly high spot on the list.

Likud's misfortunes do not mean the elections will topple the country's right-wing government.

The losses have not translated into significant gains for the main opposition party - left-wing Labour.

The right-wing religious bloc of parties continues to hold its ground, but Likud's control of the ruling coalition could be weaker.

Military crackdown

Against the backdrop of Israeli political intrigue the army has stepped up raids against the Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers
Most Israelis back a hard line against Palestinians

At least 45 Palestinians were killed in December, most of them militants, but many civilians also.

The deaths have been accompanied by relentless incursions, house demolitions and arrests.

In contrast, eight Israelis were killed - settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza.

The army says it is responding to threats of violence directed against Israeli cities and Jewish settlements, and it says the campaign is working.

But Palestinians believe this is part of Ariel Sharon's election campaign.

Some Israeli analysts say under the circumstances it certainly does not hurt Mr Sharon to try to keep the focus on security, especially as he continues to get high marks from most Israelis for his military tactics.


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