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DRAMA IN ISRAELI ELECTION CAMPAIGN

Likud Chairman Hanegbi Quits Party & Joins Sharon

Labor Party Leader Peretz Slides In Polls After Netanya Bombing; Sharon Stable With 39 Seats

Likud Candidate Mofaz Distances From Sharon Charging PM Trying To Torpedo His Campaign

MK Zachi Hanegbi

There has been more surprise in the Israeli election campaign. The chairman of the Likud, Zachi Hanegbi has quit and joined Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new Kadima party. If this were not enough, yesterday a media leak disclosed that an Israel Police enquiry is to recommend that Hanegbi be indicted for political corruption while serving as Minister of Environment. In another development, the Palestinian suicide bombing that killed five Israelis and wounded scores of others in Netanya, has hurt Labor party leader in the public opinion polls.

Another bombshell in the Israeli election campaign - Likud party chairman Zachi Hanegbi has quit and switched to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new Kadima party. If that's not enough, an Israeli police investigation is recommending that Hanegbi be indicted for political corruption in a former cabinet post.

'Ariel Sharon is the best leader for Israel in these crucial times - that's why I am quitting as chairman of the Likud party and joining the Prime Minister's new party Kadima'. Hanegbi, a super-hawk who opposed Sharon's Gaza withdrawal, said he believed the PM would not carry out any more unilateral evacuations. He then praised Sharon to high heaven for his sound judgment, tough stand against terrorism and his determination to preserve Israeli interests. Yesterday, a media link revealed that an Israeli police enquiry was said to recommend that Hanegbi indicted for political corruption while serving as a cabinet minister. But Hanegbi says there is no connection to his possible indictment and following Sharon to Kadima. At a news conference, Hanegbi said Sharon had asked him to quit the Likud and join Kadima when he formed the party over two weeks ago. Hanegbi is suspected of political cronyism in appointing Likudniks to key jobs in his ministry. However, Hanegbi categorically denies the allegations, saying he had acted above board and appointed only qualified Likud members. Hanegbi is certain he will be found innocent if the Attorney General decides to prosecute.

Reactions: The Likud party declares: 'Good riddance!' Hanegbi can join Prime Minister Sharon who is also under police investigation for corruption and his son Knesset member Omri has already pleaded guilty to fraud in the former campaign. Labor's Beiga Shochatt cracks that many Kadima members are either under investigation, about to be indicted or about to be sentenced.

Will Hanegbi's defection from the Likud to Sharon help or hinder the Prime Minister's campaign? It could backfire. The smell of corruption could sway some supporters to cast their ballot for another party.

Meanwhile, the latest polls indicate the Palestinian suicide bombing in Netanya, has hurt Labor Party leader Amir Peretz. Labor has dropped to as low 22 seats apparently due to the Peretz lack of experience in security. This may influence Peretz to overcome his bad blood with Ehud Barak and make him a deal that Barak cannot refuse. Barak, a former IDF Chief of Staff and PM could shore up Peretz on security in the match-up with Sharon. Front-runner Sharon is running far ahead with 39 seats while a Netanyahu lead Likud trails far behind with only 13. In the Likud, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is trying to distance himself from Sharon by attacking the PM. Mofaz charges that Sharon is playing 'dirty tricks' by saying the Defense Minister pays lip service to the poor while demanding a big increase to his defense budget.

David Essing

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