With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's electoral armor being battered by corruption allegations, the mighty appear to be faltering in Israel's elections and relative unknowns are moving to the fore.
The result, analysts say, is that it is now difficult to predict who will emerge as prime minister from the polls on Jan. 28, which were initially viewed as a cakewalk for Mr. Sharon over the dovish Labor party leader Amram Mitzna.
While Sharon is still the favorite, "it now really is an open race," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report weekly. In the tumult, maverick politician Tommy Lapid, an unknown abroad who is stressing clean politics, tax cuts, and curbs on the influence of religious parties, is emerging as a potential kingmaker. Mr. Lapid, a former journalist, is using his cranky charisma and a plainspoken style to turn his Shinui (Change) party into Israel's third most popular, siphoning votes from disaffected Likud followers. "We may be in a kingmaker's role: The mathematics are there," he said with a grin Tuesday night during a campaign stop in this Tel Aviv suburb. "Then the question will be who do we prefer. I am postponing my answer."
Sharon, already on the defensive from a vote-buying scandal in his Likud party, suffered a major blow yesterday when a new scandal, this one concerning him personally, refused to blow over. A banner headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily said that he and his son Gilead would face police questioning as part of an investigation into a $1.5 million loan they received last year. Sharon received the loan from South African businessman Cyril Kern, who identifies himself as a friend of the Sharon family.
Sharon did not report the loan to Israel's comptroller general. Israeli media, quoting a justice ministry document, say he is suspected of misleading the police and the comptroller general on the issue. "The more Sharon tries to get away from the spreading stains of these episodes, the more his image is blackened and years of his work to create a new and clean image descend into oblivion," wrote Maariv newspaper political analyst Chemi Shalev. "If it becomes clear there is no basis to the suspicions of criminality, the actions may be kosher legally, but from a public point of view they stink to high heaven," he wrote. "In countries of proper governance the mere receipt of such a loan would have been enough to kick out the prime minister."
It is not the first time a corruption scandal has affected an Israeli election. In 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned after it was revealed he and his wife had kept a bank account in Washington in violation of Israel's foreign currency laws. That and other scandals in the Labor party contributed to Likud's victory in the elections that year.
Still, Sharon may be able to weather the storm if he is able to shift the agenda back to terrorism and security - his perceived strong points - and depict himself as a victim of an unfounded media onslaught, according to Susser. Yesterday, Sharon termed the allegations "a political libel with one objective only: to topple a prime minister."
Working in Sharon's favor is a decision by the attorney general to freeze the investigation until after the elections, which should spare him damaging pictures of heading into police headquarters. The attorney general explained that his staff is not large enough to immediately handle cases that do not emanate from the current campaign.
Sharon appeared to be ignoring a challenge from Mitzna to reveal why he received the money, or resign. But Labor leaders reminded the public that only two weeks ago, Sharon fired a deputy minister, Naomi Blumenthal, for not answering police questions about her alleged role in the vote-buying scandal.
Mitzna is still the underdog in the race, with Labor polling only 22 seats compared with Likud's 32 last week in Yediot Ahronot's survey. Analysts say Likud may drop under 30 when weekend polls come out, meaning it will have lost a quarter of its strength since the start of the campaign.
Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa and previously an unknown in national politics, is trying to narrow the gap by emphasizing his security credentials in television advertisements that highlight his army career and his close relations with Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated prime minister. Likud ads depict Mitzna as an "amateur" compared with the "determined, responsible" leadership of Sharon, shown in the company of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Soviet leader Vladimir Putin.
Lapid takes a more humorous approach. He is pictured with a roulette wheel as he complains of the Knesset being turned into a casino through alleged connections between gangsters and Likud Knesset candidates. "Corrupt ones, we are sick of you," he says.
Analyst say Shinui has drawn Likud voters unwilling to make the jump to Labor because they see Mitzna as too dovish and associate the party with the failed Oslo agreement.
Polls show Shinui would now gain fourteen Knesset seats, compared to six in the last elections, raising the prospect that it could replace the ultra-Orthodox parties that have traditionally served as junior partners in Israeli coalitions.
Shinui strikes a middle ground on the Palestinian issue, calling for the evacuation of far-flung Jewish settlements in the West Bank during peace arrangements, yet rejecting renewed talks with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat or unilateral withdrawals.
Lapid, after asking a crowd of Russian immigrants here if they understood his Hebrew, made a campaign pitch in which he did not mention the Palestinians at all. His white hair in disarray, he wove his thumb through the air while inveighing against ultra-Orthodox Israelis and promising "liberation from the dictatorship of the ultra-Orthodox and the rabbis."
"Eighty percent of the ultra-Orthodox don't work and all of them evade army service," he said. "All of the burden is placed on the middle class."
Nachum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, says many people support Shinui not because they like it, but rather because they detest Labor and Likud. "The secret of Shinui's success is despair, despair from the solutions of the right and left, despair from the political system," Barnea wrote.