- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 9 (UPI) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took to the airwaves Thursday and accused the media as well as the main opposition party, Labor, of spreading "contemptible libel" with intent to "topple the regime … and seize power with a lie" — no-holds-barred comments that got him switched off mid-way by election monitors.

Sharon launched the offensive after weeks in which the media has been inundated with allegations of vote buying in his Likud Party primaries and alleged wrongdoings by his two sons. This week the Justice Ministry asked the South African government to help obtain evidence in connection with a criminal investigation involving his actions.

The reports have eroded support for his Likud Party 19 days before national elections. Polls that had predicted the Likud would gain almost 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset noted a steady drop in support for and suggest that if elections were held now the Likud would win 27 or 28 seats.

Sharon started the news conference at 8 p.m. on prime time TV. He lashed out at Labor so fiercely that Supreme Court Judge Mishael Cheshin, who heads the Central Elections Committee, eventually stopped the broadcast. Israeli law severely restricts party propaganda on the electronic media 60 days before the elections.

Sharon accused his political rivals and the media of trying to smear his party, to "turn us all into a mafia, organized crime." He was referring to allegations that organized crime penetrated the Likud Party and that some people who ran in the party primaries bribed their way into its list of Knesset candidates. Police are investigating these allegations and Sharon recently sacked Deputy Infrastructure Minister Naomi Blumenthal for refusing to answer their questions.

Sharon complained the Labor Party and the media were not that harsh with alleged wrong doings in Labor. When the opposition party realized it was not gaining popularity, it "tried to hurt me through my sons," he said.

The prime minister referred to reports than his son Omri, who made it to the Likud's list of Knesset candidates, befriended a former criminal and was involved in arranging the primaries to suit his interests.

Sharon's other son, Gilad, allegedly received large sums of money, and was promised millions more, for consultancy in a plan to build a resort on a Greek island. The controversial entrepreneur did not yet have the island and the offer aroused speculation that the investor wanted to enlist Sharon's help in obtaining the site. At that time Sharon was a member of the Cabinet.

"Gilad is a professional economist," Sharon declared. "He was paid for his work. Is this a mafia?"

Leaving off from his prepared notes, he looked at the journalists and thumped the lectern. "Are you crazy? Are you out of your minds?" he challenged.

The prime minister said that when those reports, too, failed to change public opinion, "Someone … leaks a (Justice Ministry) document full of hearsay and lies about Gilad's business as if they are connected to me."

That scandal concerns the source of money used to repay illegal contributions totaling $980,000 he had received during the Likud Party primaries in 1999. Much about that source of funding is still mysterious and Omri Sharon refused to answer questions so as not to incriminate himself and others, the state controller said.

Sharon said he decided to return that money, adding he used his own and his wife's savings and went into overdraft to immediately repay NIS 500,000, almost $104,000. Gilad raised the rest: "I did not know, exactly, how the money was obtained," he told the journalists.

Gilad reportedly borrowed $1.49 million from a friend of the family who lives in South Africa, Cyril Kern, and used it as collateral for a bank loan with which Sharon returned the debt. Sharon was supposed to report Kern's loan.

He said police asked him how he returned the money. "I said I don't know exactly, that my sons took care of it, and to the best of my knowledge the farm was mortgaged. If, in fact, another way was found, all the better," he said.

Kern meanwhile got his money back with interest. "I haven't seen a bribe going through banks, with documents, and interest," Sharon argued.

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, of Labor, noted that the Public Security, Justice and the Foreign Ministries that transferred the letter to South Africa are all headed by members of Sharon's Likud Party.

Burg added sarcastically: "Millions move around his (Sharon's) pockets, his children's, his farm, and he, poor one, doesn't know! The prime minister doesn't know what is happening between his pockets? How will he know what is happening in the state of Israel?"

Sharon "ought to resign, clear his name if he can, and return to politics. If he does not clear it, perhaps he is unfit," Burg said.

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