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Israeli Candidates Begin Campaigning Ahead of Jan. 28 Vote - 2003-01-08

Israel's election campaign has officially begun for balloting on January 28. The main issue remains security in the midst of continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence. But the campaign is being overshadowed by a widening scandal involving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party.

The race is on to see who will lead Israel's next government, and the campaign got underway with a nearly hour-long block of political ads airing Tuesday on television and radio.

There was incumbent Prime Minister Sharon striding across his ranch in the Negev desert and sitting down for talks with world leaders. His main rival, Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna, is shown as both a loving father and military hero, who is thanked for service to his country by none other than the late prime minister and peacemaker Yitzak Rabin. In the ad, Mr. Rabin lauds Amram Mitzna, the soldier, for his steadfastness in defending Israel.

Security amid the 27-month-old Palestinian uprising remains the central issue in Israel's election campaign. The promise of security brought Mr. Sharon to power almost two years ago.

But despite tough military measures and Israel's reoccupation of most of the West Bank, the violence continues. Just last Sunday two young Palestinian suicide bombers struck central Tel Aviv, killing 22 people and injuring another 100.

In his ad, Ariel Sharon talks to voters about such attacks, saying it's been a difficult two years, and he asks voters to stay the course, promising to bring peace and security to a nervous nation, but offering no specifics on how he plans to do that.

Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna says he has the solutions. He proposes to build an impenetrable border between Israel and the West Bank, from Bet Shean in the north to Arad in the south.

Such a border, widely known here as "the fence," has already been started. Mr. Mitzna promises to finish the job quickly, if elected.

The dovish Labor leader does not mention his other, more controversial proposal, to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians from the point where they broke down in September 2000.

There are other parties joining the advertising barrage, like the religious party Shas, whose leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, says the people of Israel are in danger, and talks of the sounds of war. Rabbi Yosef preaches that only God and prayer will protect Israelis.

Shas is the third-largest party in the Israeli parliament, and in past elections has often found itself as tie-breaker and king-maker.

On the political left is Tommy Lapid's Shinui Party with its call for a return to the country's secular roots. He promises an independent course, vowing not to join in any right-wing or left-wing coalition.

Several other parties of the left and the right are also competing for seats and are likely to further complicate the next prime minister's work.

As the campaign kicked off Tuesday, the daily Ha'aretz newspaper reported that Mr. Sharon and his sons are the target of a police investigation over a huge loan from an old Sharon friend.

The allegations concern a reported $1.5 million loan from South African businessman Cyril Kern to Mr. Sharon's sons Gilad and Omri. Mr. Sharon's spokesmen say the money was to be used as collateral for a loan to cover re-payment of illegal campaign funds stemming from 1999.

Mr. Sharon denounced the allegations of wrongdoing as "political slander" and vowed to disprove them.

The loan issue is just the latest in a string of allegations of shady practices within Likud. Last week, Mr. Sharon fired his deputy cabinet minister for infrastructure, Naomi Blumenthal, for refusing to answer police questions about alleged election fraud.

Authorities are probing allegations that members of the Likud Central Committee took bribes to put names on the list of top candidates they were drawing up for the election.

For the next few weeks, Israeli voters will be bombarded with slogans and promises in an effort to get out the vote at the end of the month.

Despite the ongoing violence, public opinion polls have consistently shown Mr. Sharon's Likud Party well ahead of its main rival, Labor. But, there is one big question how the burgeoning scandal involving Mr. Sharon, his sons, and Likud will influence voters.