Sharon's fight back fades in TV lights
Israeli prime minister's failure to dispel whiff of scandal makes his support crumble before the general election
Conal Urquhart in Jerusalem
Saturday January 11, 2003
It was meant to be the great fightback. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, would confound his critics and regain the initiative in the elections.
Instead, Mr Sharon ranted at his opponents and avoided pertinent questions during a press conference. To many surprised Israelis he looked less the triumphant leader and more like a man ready to throw in the towel.
In Israel he is known as the Teflon man but he appeared to be weighed down by what is, by his own standards, some very insignificant mud.
Mr Sharon has been accused of making his own war plans and allowing the massacre of thousands of Palestinians. He has retained the confidence of the Israeli electorate despite continuing terrorist attacks and a shrinking economy.
Yet his inability to explain a few minor financial irregularities has been a "bodyblow", according to the rightwing Jerusalem Post.
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that Mr Sharon had failed to answer questions and give the impression that he was in control of the situation.
"What we saw was not a prime minister, not even a leader of a party. It was a man under great pressure.
"Either he is so under pressure because he fears losing the election or he knows more about the issues than he is revealing. He was sending out a message that he is not a leader for this kind of time."
Mr Sharon promised to give the public "documents and facts" about the $1.5m (£1m) loan given to his son by Cyril Kern, a British friend of the prime minister who lives in South Africa.
The loan was to help the family pay back illegal contributions used to help Mr Sharon beat Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud leadership contest in 1999.
When questioned by police, the prime minister claimed that the family ranch had been mortgaged to repay contributions, but it transpired later that the Sharon family did not own it.
He told viewers he was the victim of "a despicable plot to capture the government with lies". He accused the Labour party and its leader, Amram Mitzna, of corruption.
After 10 meandering minutes he had failed to do anything but attack the Labour party, and a supreme court judge ordered the broadcast to be terminated for breaching a ban on electoral propaganda within 60 days of an election.
Ha'aretz, the newspaperwhich broke the story of Mr Sharon's financial irregularities, suggested that his incoherent attacks on enemies was a deliberate attempt to breach the ban on television electioneering. That way his supporters would hear accusations of conspiracy and victimisation but miss his failure to answer questions.
As he spoke, he slouched and looked tired as he rambled about his family and his friendship for the man who lent the money to him.
He claimed that he did not know the precise details of how he managed to pay back £666,000 that was misused in a political campaign.
"I took out my savings, and those of Lily [his late wife] and that's how I paid back half a million shekels (£66,000) ... Gilad [his son] volunteered to raise the rest of the money ... He took out a loan of 4.5m (£600,000) ... and as far as I was concerned, the affair was over.
"I didn't know how exactly how the money was paid back and I wasn't told about a mortgage... When I was asked by police, I said I really didn't know precisely, and to the best of my knowledge, the ranch was mortgaged."
The accusation that he tried to cover up a loan followed a police investigation into Likud for vote-buying in its internal elections.
Before Christmas Likud was predicted to win 40 of the 120 knesset seats but on Thursday the opinion polls suggested that they would win only 27 seats, which would make it more difficult to form a coalition government.
Professor Camil Fuchs, a psephologist, said that Mr Sharon was unlikely to gain any votes from his television appearance
He said: "From talking to people, there is a perception that he was slightly hysterical and maybe in a bit of a panic. This is something that no one expected from him and this will put off many voters."
Prof Fuchs said the Likud vote was unlikely to fall much further because it was already close to its hard core support. The difficulty for the Labour Party, he said, was benefiting from Likud's problems.
"Until now all the voters that have left Likud have gone to more right wing parties."
Despite his difficulties, no one is writing off Mr Sharon.
Palestinian violence has often come to his rescue and a few serious attacks will make his financial irregularities seem irrelevant to the wellbeing of the country.
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