- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

JERUSALEM Watching his activists roll up to a recent rally on bicycles festooned with pictures of marijuana leaves, Israeli Dan Goldenblatt summed up his party's appeal.
"We are definitely trying to gather the protest vote," he said. His Green Leaf Party advocates legalizing marijuana, and polls show it could win its first seats in parliament in the Jan. 28 elections.
It's not just the bloody conflict with the Palestinians or the country's economic depression that has some Israeli voters turning toward a pot party.
The country's largest party and convicted racketeers are the target of a widening police probe of vote-buying and influence-peddling. Security is still seen by voters as the most important issue, but recently it has been overshadowed by political scandal.
As a result, pollsters say, voters are more undecided and disgusted than usual.
Many of the scandals involve last month's primary to select the parliamentary candidate list for the ruling Likud Party.
There are questions about who paid for the luxury hotel rooms used by the large committee of Likud members who voted in the primary.
Another involves ties between Musa Alperon, a Likud activist, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's son, Omri. Tainted with underworld connections and a prison record for counterfeiting, Mr. Alperon bowed out to save the party from association with "people like me." But days later, angered at how happy some in the party were to be rid of him, he rejoined.
Another controversy erupted over an effort to remove from the slate of candidates two representatives of Israel's large Arab population on grounds that, essentially, they are not loyal to the state. Meanwhile, a Jewish candidate who is under police investigation for leading the violent, outlawed Kach movement has been allowed to run.
The almost-daily revelations have not changed the election forecasts made after Mr. Sharon called in November for an early vote. His Likud Party should win handily over the Labor Party, the country's other main group. Between them the Likud, which advocates a hard line in dealing with the Palestinians, and Labor, which favors negotiations, will likely win nearly half of the Knesset's 120 seats.
But Mr. Sharon's comfortable lead in the polls started shrinking in the last two weeks. Voter dissatisfaction has lent an air of unpredictability to what most people figured would be an unsurprising election season. If a relatively few voters shift their support to minor parties, it could have an impact in a country where coalition politics give oversized clout to smaller parties.
"The election campaign could have more of an effect than in other years," said Michal Shamir, political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "The middle [voter] is very confused and disenchanted and frustrated."
The scandals come close to Mr. Sharon, 74, a patrician politician with two sons in the middle of the fray.
A newspaper report said Gilad Sharon was offered millions of dollars by an Israeli developer for his father's help pushing a project overseas a charge Mr. Sharon's office said was baseless.
Omri Sharon, a key adviser to his father who in the past has negotiated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, acknowledged being friends with a convicted extortionist who reportedly helped win him a seat on the Likud's candidate list.
The candidate list was chosen by the 2,940 members of the Likud central committee. Those voted into the top 35 places on the party list have a good shot at seats in the parliament, or Knesset, depending on the results of the election.
Two failed candidates told police that party functionaries offered to sell them votes in the primary. Two "vote contractors" have already been arrested. Police are also investigating whether the Likud list was influenced by organized crime.
No single political party has ever mustered enough votes to win a majority in the Knesset, meaning that ruling coalitions must be formed among disparate parties. Such volatile politics has been a test for Israel's elections laws.
Israel is now holding its third national election in five years, meaning there is little time for case law and precedent to firm up between races. The police are still investigating whether Labor and Likud raised money illegally in the 2001 election.
In the current election, the disqualification of the Arab candidates were done by a Likud-led committee and are probably supported by most Israelis. The country's high court will get the final say. But analysts say the episode shows that Israelis are letting their fears of terrorism undermine their democracy.
In the long run, life-and-death issues of security will likely override voter concern about corruption. Israelis tend to accept Mr. Sharon's view that the conflict with the Palestinians requires patience and a long-term military campaign. Labor's prime minister candidate, Amram Mitzna, has found far less support for his alternative that negotiations and a significant Israeli withdrawal from occupied areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could quell the fighting.
But Mr. Sharon planned to spend last weekend huddled with political aides to look for a way to quiet the spreading scandal. Some said he wants to move the focus back on security.
"The best thing that could happen is for the U.S. strike on Iraq to begin as of Sunday. If possible, on Saturday night, so that the headlines of the morning papers could already announce the war," wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "But Sharon is preparing for the most difficult situation from his standpoint: A regular weekday, in which nothing diverts attention from internal politics."
Distributed by the New York Times News Service

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