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Vote-Selling Scandal Could Hurt Likud

Vote-Selling Scandal Could Hurt Likud

Charges that members of the Likud Partyís Central Committee sold their votes for cash and other favors in this month’s primary (and to a lesser extent allegations of voting irregularities in the Labor Party primary) have rocked the Israeli electorate, with one poll showing that one-fifth of Israelis plan to change their vote because of it.
"It’s too early to know where it will go, but this is definitely a Watergate-type of event and it will get worse and not get swept under the rug," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "This is an earthquake and it will change the system significantly. It will have an impact on these elections; people will not forget about it."
Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not been personally tainted by the scandal, Steinberg said, "this has cost him more than anybody else. He was sitting pretty; it was his election to lose."
The scandal, in which two members of the Likud Central Committee were arrested Tuesday for alleged attempted bribery, came amid sputtering efforts to resume the peace process. British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to send a delegation to London next month to discuss Palestinian reforms needed to resume peace talks. But at the same time, President George W. Bush acceded to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s request to delay until after the Israeli elections Jan. 28 a move to finalize the "road map" to peace being developed by the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, known as the Quartet.
All of this occurred as Israeli security forces reported several foiled Palestinian terrorist attacks, including a plan to shoot down a helicopter carrying Sharon over the Knesset, plant a bomb outside Sharon’s home, and assassinate Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
And it came after the first combat death of a female Israeli soldier since the Palestinian violence began nearly 27 months ago. Keren Yaacoby was shot and killed by Palestinian snipers along with a fellow soldier, Maor Chalfon. Both were on guard duty in Hebron, where 450 Jews live next to 150,000 Palestinians. They were killed near the spot 12 Israeli soldiers, border police and security guards were gunned down in an ambush last month. Yaacoby’s family was outspoken in criticizing Israel’s policy of endangering soldiers for the protection of Hebron, the burial site of the Biblical patriarachs and matriarchs.
Israel Radio reported Wednesday that after meeting with members of the Quartet Friday in Washington, Bush would announce that the "road map" was not ready for presentation: because of the need to wait until after the Israeli elections, and White House differences with a draft being circulated. It said that among the differences were: the EU’s insistence on an immediate Israeli freeze in settlement building, while the Bush administration believes Palestinian terror attacks must end first; and the EU wants restrictions on Israel’s use of "targeted killing" of Palestinian terrorists, a move the U.S. opposes.
Although polls show Sharon handily winning re-election, it is expected to take several weeks for him to put together a coalition government. But Thomas Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1985-88, told The Jewish Week he believes the U.S. should not wait until a new government is formed to unveil the road map.
"It would make sense to make some progress [in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] before we go into Iraq," Pickering explained. "The president is in a stronger position in dealing with Iraq if this process is moving ahead. … It’s hard to speculate on the Iraqi thing. A lot depends on what Saddam [Hussein] does, when he makes a mistake or is caught lying; nobody can predict that."
Asked about the Blair invitation to Arafat, Pickering said: "The amazing thing for me is that it is hard to see Arafat coming forward to negotiate anything. On the other hand, the more he is under pressure by the Israeli government, the more popular he becomes among Palestinians."
But he said he believed the London meeting can make a "positive contribution" because it would focus on Palestinian reforms and be attended by the Quartet, along with, possibly, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No date for the meeting has been set, but Arafat has said he expects to have his delegation selected by the end of the month.
Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, noted that Blair’s invitation to Arafat came shortly after Blair and Queen Elizabeth II gave the red carpet treatment to Syrian President Bashar Assad in his first official visit to Britain. Cohen said he doubted Assad would have been so warmly welcomed had Syria not voted with the rest of the United Nations Security Council to send weapons inspectors to Iraq.
Meanwhile the election scandal, in which Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has ordered a criminal investigation, threatens to have major implications and may even force the Likud Party (whose candidates for the Knesset were selected by the 2,500 members of its Central Committee) to have a re-vote, Steinberg suggested.
It is alleged that Central Committee members published a pamphlet listing candidates who paid about $1,000 to have their names included. Those who didn’t pay were not listed. One candidate, Nahman Shechter of Eilat, was quoted in the Israeli press as saying: "They asked for 60,000 shekels for 299 votes. I replied cynically that if they brought me an even 300 votes, it would be worth 120,000 shekels. Then I got out of there quickly."
It is also alleged that one Likud Knesset member entertained 30 Central Committee members at a fancy hotel in order to seek their support and that the secretary of a Likud candidate said her boss asked her to hint to Central Committee members that she would exchange sexual favors in return for their support.
The prime minister rushed to do damage control Tuesday, vowing to oust any Likud Party member tied to the scandal. He told Israel television: "I will take all the necessary steps against all those who are implicated. … We will exclude them from Likud."
He said he had asked Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit to recommend legislation that would prevent what he called "exploitation" of the system by criminal elements. And he pledged that as long as he chaired the party, "the current system for electing Likud nominees … will not be repeated. There’s no doubt the Likud has to change its system to something more open, with more supervision, preferably by the state, to be determined by the Knesset."
Although voters are still expected to overwhelmingly vote for the Likud Party and thus keep Sharon in office for another four years, the margin of victory might be narrowed because of voter disgust over the scandal. A poll by one Israel television station found that 19 percent of those surveyed said the scandal would cause them to change their vote. Although the poll did not ask about political parties, Likud has been the most tainted and could be expected to lose the most. A 19 percent swing in the vote could translate into 25 seats in the Knesset.
The poll gave Likud 35 seats (down from the 40 predicted just a week ago) and Labor 23 seats (it now has 25 and was expected to drop to 19 or 20).
"If a minister or a member of the Knesset is involved, it could change the tenor of the election," Joseph Alpher, a political analyst and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said before the poll was released. "Nothing may come of this, but if you watch the body language of senior Likud people who go on TV and say this is nothing serious, you get the impression that it has the potential of being a really bad stink."
"I doubt Likud could lose the election, unless this spirals into something [more]," Alpher added. "But if Likud loses a few [seats] and [their voters] go to the left, it would reflect on the balances of forces when Sharon tries to set up a new government. The smaller the right … the more bargaining [Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna] will have."
He said he would not be surprised to see Labor play up the corruption allegations in its campaign literature, charging that Likud has been "penetrated by organized crime and is corrupt."
Although officially Labor Party leaders insist they have no plans to pounce on the scandal, one Labor Party official was quoted as saying Labor would portray Mitzna has "clean," and that a possible campaign slogan was, "Sharon" a step toward the underworld."
Not to be outdone, Likud is reportedly planning to paint Mitzna as corrupt by citing 10 corruption allegations against him while he served as Haifa’s mayor. One strategy is said to point out a police investigation into cash accounts Mitzna used to finance the primaries. One television ad being considered would reportedly show Mitzna with contractors and magnates and call it "Mitzna’s real dream team."
Allegations of Labor Party irregularities in last month’s primary (in which 54 percent of the partyís 110,000 members cast votes to select the party’s Knesset candidates) focused on reports of some party members casting two votes and an inordinate number of votes being cast in some precincts.
Without changes in the system, corruption is bound to occur, according to Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University.
"Just to put stamps on letters costs money and in the Likud that means 2,500 stamps and you have to approach them two or three times," he said. "That costs a lot of money and this by itself provides an incentive to violate the law. In this kind of situation, there are a lot of individuals who say, ‘Come, let’s make a buck.’"

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