Israel's tough guy hangs on

Despite scandals and a weak economy, Ariel Sharon has a big lead going into the Jan. 28 elections.

Other leaders probably wish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could bottle whatever it is that keeps him on top.

Despite charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, Mr. Sharon still tops the polls going into Israel's Jan. 28 elections. His Likud party has a comfortable 10- to 12-seat edge over the Labor party and is likely to maintain it thanks to voter devotion, lackluster opposition, and Sharon's potent image as a warrior.

"[He] symbolizes the strong leader," says Daphna Canetti, a Haifa University professor who specializes in political psychology. "He's telling people, 'I will bring you security, I won't negotiate with these terrorists, I will strike them.' When people are afraid they want someone who appeals to their emotions. Sharon is speaking to their emotions."

Analysts warn that one scandal in particular still could lead to Sharon's downfall.

"He's not invincible," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "Stories about him are mounting and it's dangerous to predict the next two weeks. If he's too tainted, he won't be able to keep going ... but Israelis don't see an alternative who would be tougher in coping with terror."

On the face of it, Sharon should be struggling. Likud faces three separate corruption scandals and the prime minister has failed on promises to provide Israelis with peace and security.

His main rival has also complicated Sharon's post-election prospects. This week Labor leader Amram Mitzna announced that his party, which has 20 of the Knesset's 120 seats in current polls, would not join a Likud-led government.

If Sharon wins, Mr. Mitzna's move could force him into a coalition with right-wing parties, undermining his centrist stance.

Such a coalition would be barely workable. It would have 63 seats, hardly enough to rule, and would include parties with very different agendas. Sharon has agreed, in principle, to a Palestinian state and a "roadmap" meant to achieve that state.

Some of the parties he would be forced to embrace are vehemently opposed to any concessions on the occupied Palestinian territories. It's a recipe for political gridlock that could lead to early elections.

While Sharon has said he is determined not to take this route, Likud members are laughing off Mitzna's declaration. After the election, they could use it against him by inviting Labor into their coalition, sweetening the offer with some strong cabinet positions.

Benjamin Ben Eliezer and Shimon Peres, who held the defense and foreign portfolios in Sharon's first government, are only two of the Laborites who might challenge Mitzna over the matter, pushing him from leadership in the process.

"Sooner or later, Labor will become part of a unity government," says Gad Barzilai, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. "Even if Mitzna's own party has to vote against him to do it."

Indeed, one Laborite met with a Likud minister Wednesday to discuss the possibility, telling the press that a unity government shouldn't be ruled out. "The word 'never' does not appear in the political lexicon," Ephraim Sneh told the media. "We are a political party and we have one true commitment: the good of the country."

On the surface, the Likud party has none of these internal fault lines, despite more obvious stresses. The party has been rocked by three recent corruption scandals, all of which have prompted investigations. Bribery charges sullied the Likud party primaries in early December. The Justice Ministry is examining a deal between Sharon, his son Gilad, and an Israeli businessman. And recently, Sharon has battled allegations connected to illegal campaign contributions.

This last could still cause trouble for Sharon. The late Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin had to resign from office in 1977 over revelations that he hadn't declared an overseas back account in his wife's name that held $20,000. The charges facing Sharon involve millions.

The wave of scandal pulled the Likud down in the polls from 40 seats to 28.

But after Sharon appeared on television to defend himself and the broadcast was unceremoniously yanked from the air by the Central Elections Committee, Likud started inching back up in the polls. Likud activists say that undecided voters were galvanized by the aborted speech, which was cut off for violating a ban on campaigning 60 days before an election: It looked like the leftist, elitist legal and media establishments were ganging up on Sharon. And if his speech had been blustery, meandering, and repetitive, Israelis didn't mind.

"We know he isn't good at speaking," says taxi driver David Alloul of the speech. "That's OK, that's not what we want from him. We want toughness."

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