Jan. 10, 2003
Jerusalem (ICEJ) -- Israeli politics reached a crescendo of scandal and media hype on Thursday night as embattled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, walloped in the past week by accusations of wrongdoing, was cut off mid-sentence during a speech to answer charges of improper campaign financing in the 1999 elections.
Mishael Cheshin, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, ordered Israeli media to stop live coverage of a press conference after 10 minutes, saying that Sharon violated election laws by campaigning during his speech.
Sharon was saying that he was the target of an â€œabominable conspiracyâ€ to bring him down. Over the past 10 days voting bribery scandals have rocked the rightwing Likud party.
Likud, which was expected to pick up an easy majority in the Knesset, has slipped in the polls, to around 29 seats from a predicted 41 in early December. The leftwing Labor party, however, has not gained much ground during the Likud turmoil, according to polls.
Sharon said he returned campaign contributions when he learned that they were illegal and he denied knowledge of a $1.5 million loan to his sons to reimburse contributions to his 1999 campaign for the Likud leadership.
â€œMy problem is that this story was deliberately leaked on the eve of an election, in order to paint the Likud, the largest party in the country, as a party of criminals,â€ Sharon said. â€œLabor opened hunting season on an entire party, trying to portray us as the Mafia for political reasons. â€¦ Have they gone mad?"
Sharon's rebuttal was overshadowed when Cheshin ordered all radio and television stations to stop live broadcast of the press conference.
"Sharon's speech spilled over into election propaganda," CEC spokesman Giora Pordes said. "We all know that election propaganda is prohibited 60 days before the election."
Likud campaign manager Ehud Olmert said Cheshin's decision "to gag the prime minister" fit into the overall "conspiracy" against Sharon.
"He's been tainted and smeared for ten days. Labor calls him a mafioso and the head of organized crime in Israel. Therefore, even if he were to speak differently, Labor would have attacked his performance," Olmert said.
The Central Elections Committee will deduct advertising time from the Likud and will allow Mitzna to do an interview on television Saturday night. Labor is also calling for prosecution of Sharon for violating election laws, a crime which carried a prison sentence.
The Central Elections Committee will meet on Saturday night to discuss the incident. The Israeli elections are set for Jan. 28.