- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

JERUSALEM Senior officials of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling Likud party are pressing for his son to be dropped as a candidate in the elections this month to limit damage from the continuing row over charges of financial impropriety.
The prospect of Mr. Sharon's securing an easy victory dimmed last week following controversy over a $1.5 million loan paid to his family during his 1999 leadership campaign. The row and Mr. Sharon's handling of it have led to a sharp decline in the party's popularity in opinion polls ahead of the Jan. 28 vote.
Behind the scenes, alarmed Likud officials have turned against Omri Sharon, who is number 27 on the party's list for parliament, and who, with his younger brother Gilad, emerged at the center of the controversy last week.
The disputed loan was from Cyril Kern, a British fashion magnate and long-standing friend of the Sharon family who now lives in South Africa. The money was transferred to a joint bank account held by Omri and Gilad, after Mr. Sharon was forced to repay illegal campaign contributions to other supporters.
"People in the party were already unhappy that Sharon had got his son so high on the candidate list. Now, some want him to be sacrificed as a gesture to the voters," a senior Likud member of parliament said. "Although it could appear as an admission of guilt, colleagues are saying that something must be done and done fast."
Another Likud official told the Ha'aretz newspaper: "Sharon junior is perceived by many to be responsible for the troubles his father and the Likud party are facing. His resignation might be able to change the trend, though it might be too late."
On Thursday, Mr. Sharon was forced to address the nation about the controversy but suffered the ignominy of a judge's ordering television stations to pull the plug on the speech midway through it because of strict rules governing election broadcasting.
Mr. Sharon appeared to offer up different versions of the loan story last week and deflected attention onto his sons by claiming that they handled his finances. Now, both Omri and Gilad face questioning by police over the loan affair.
According to the latest polls, Likud has lost about one-third of its support over the past month, and 31 percent of voters said that they no longer believe Mr. Sharon is fit to be prime minister.
The disarray has become a gift to Amram Mitzna, the Labor opposition leader, who has sought to capitalize on events by portraying himself as an anti-corruption crusader. Mr. Mitzna, a former general, has sought to cast Mr. Sharon as a "Godfather" figure presiding over a mafiosi government.
The latest opinion polls suggest that Likud will struggle now to form a conservative coalition government while, for the first time, Labor is seriously claiming it could preside over a center-left coalition government after the elections.
Victory by Mr. Mitzna would change the course of events in the Middle East dramatically. He advocates a unilateral pullback from many Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the reopening of talks with the Palestinians.
However, political analysts have warned that Mr. Sharon should not be counted out prematurely. Some projections show him able to scrape together a coalition in the 120-member Knesset (parliament) with a bare majority of 61.

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