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Israel's Central Elections Committee to Discuss Cutting Off Sharon's Broadcast


Israel's Central Elections Committee is to convene Saturday night to discuss the decision of the committee chairman to cut off the nationwide radio and TV broadcast of a news conference by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Thursday night. Mr. Sharon says the action prevented him from refuting allegations of financial improprieties, but the opposition charges the Israeli leader was electioneering, in violation of the law.

The chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Mishael Cheshin, ordered a halt to media coverage of the Sharon news conference soon after it began.

He said Mr. Sharon's attack on chief rival Amram Mitzna was a violation of the broadcasting law preventing the airing of "election propaganda" in the month leading up to a vote. Mr. Sharon's Likud party countered that the black out interfered with the prime minister's ability to properly answer corruption allegations leveled against him.

Mr. Mitzna's Labor party called on the election committee to look into what it said was the blatant manner in which Mr. Sharon used the media for election propaganda.

In his Thursday night remarks, Mr. Sharon accused the Labor Party of trying to bring down the government through lies and by attempting to portray him and his party as "the Mafia."

He is accused of improperly accepting a $1.5-million loan from a South African businessman to repay campaign contributions from the 1999 election that had been determined by the elections committee to be improper. Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna described Mr. Sharon as a man under pressure trying to save himself.

Israel's Army Radio reported that the Labor Party will ask the Central Elections Committee to fine both the Likud and Mr. Sharon for violating the broadcasting laws.

The head of the Likud's election campaign, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, criticized the move to cut off the press conference saying the prime minister was prevented from defending himself.

Mr. Sharon has dismissed the allegations as a "despicable political plot" designed to topple him.

The scandal has cost the Likud party dearly in public opinion polls. Several surveys published Thursday show Likud likely to win only 27 or 28 parliamentary seats in the January 28 election. Just four weeks ago Likud was projected to win 41 seats.

However, Likud is still ahead of Labor, as Likud voters appear to be switching to smaller parties. Mr. Sharon is still projected to win the election, but he will need to create a complex coalition to form a government.

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