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A scandal-shadowed Likud primary election that seemed to hand a ringing slap to party chief Ariel Sharon may ultimately enable the prime minister to realize one of his principle goals: the rebuilding of a unity government following January 28 general elections.

Ironically, the possibility that the apparent corruption scandal could sap the Likud's strength at the polls, could hand Sharon the leverage he would need to renew his alliance with the center-left Labor.

Thus far, the specter of a home-grown corruption scandal - in the view of some, a by-product of the Likud's expected success - may be the strongest obstacle yet to a Sharon landslide in January.

If, as predicted, Sharon's party steamrollers to victory, the prime minister would likely come under crushing right-wing pressure to establish a government composed entirely of hawkish parties, even if that meant a rickety parliamentary majority of five or less votes.

Should the Likud fair less well at the polls, however, Sharon could swing party leaders to agree to a reprise of the unity government, arguing that the numbers gave him no choice.

The scandal has yet to prove more than a fleeting episode. But if, as in some past elections, a portion of the public decides to 'punish' the ruling party for perceived or real corruption, the Likud's apparent cruise to a muscular Knesset faction could stumble.

According to Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar, "If Sharon can come to the Likud Central Committee able to make a case that he needed a coalition with Labor, and if at the same time, Shimon Peres and Fuad [ex-Labor chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer] came to the Labor Central Committee to speak in favor of unity, Bibi [Sharon's party rival Benjamin Netanyahu] would not be able to stop it, and [Labor Chairman Amram] Mitzna would be unable or unwilling to stop it.

The Likud's December 8 primary vote was held in a carnival atmosphere wherein candidates' supporters dosed central committee delegates with freshly grilled steaks, Moroccan delicacies, and pizza. The balloting was initially viewed as a victory for Netanyahu, whose supporters took 10 of the first 31 slots on the list.

However, the primary quickly took on a darker air, as allegations of outright bribery began to surface. Even before the nearly 3,000-strong central committee went to the polls to rank the party's candidate for the Knesset, candidates began complaining of having been approached by local bosses, acting as "vote contractors," who set "price lists" for delivering blocs of votes in the closely contested primary in exchange for large sums of money and sexual and other favors.

Polls showing that the party could more than double its current Knesset strength to as many as 41 seats - a pre-eminent position in the splintered, 120-member house - attracted a plethora of candidates, some of whom were later linked in media reports to organized crime, alleged extortion threats, and vote-selling schemes.

Likud leaders at first voiced confidence that the affair would swiftly pass, superceded by the campaign's twinned issues of security and the economy. Their optimism has since been dented by new allegations have proliferated this week, though, spurred by criminal probes ordered by Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, an internal Likud review to be headed by Justice Minister Meit Sheetrit, and intensive investigations by broadcast and print media.

Late on Monday, officers of the national police fraud investigation unit made the first two arrests in the case, two key Central Committee members. The arrests capped a long list of parallel developments, among them:

- A Tuesday Army Radio investigative report that Gila Gamliel, who finished a high 11th on the Likud list, had blackmailed and bribed a fellow students association official at Be'er Sheva's Ben-Gurion University in order to retain her position as chair of the association, the springboard for a subsequent meteoric rise within the national party.

- Planned testimony to police investigators Tuesday by Eilat Likud activist Nachman Schechter, who faired poorly in the primary after he spurned what he called offers to sell votes. Schechter's testimony was moved up 24 hours to expedite the police probe. "Someone suggested I should pay several tens of thousands of shekels in exchange for 299 votes," he said Sunday. "I replied cynically, 'get me an even 300 and I'll pay 120,' and then I ran away from there as fast as I could."

- Police testimony Monday by former Likud MK Akiva Nof and central committee member Haim Cohen, both unsuccessful in the primary vote. Nof gave detectives the names of central committee members who allegedly demanded money in excahnge for votes. Cohen said a person claiming to be a member of the central committee had demanded $70,000 for his support, and that a fellow candidate was asked to pay a full NIS 1 million for the backing of 70 committee members.

- A Monday night appearance by Moshe (Musa) Alperon, a member both of the central committee and of a family long linked in press reports to organized crime in Israel, at a victory rally for hawkish lawmakerYisrael Katz, a close lieutenant of Sharon's party rival Benjamin Netanyahu. Front-page tabloid publicity granted the appearance, disavowed by Katz himself, followed widespread speculation that Inbal Gavrieli, a 27-year-old political novice, had landed one of the top 30 slots on the Likud list through her family's reputed links to casino operations.

- A Tuesday radio report that MK Avraham Hirchson had arranged to have more than 40 central committee members invited to a Dead Sea resort hotel for a weekend in which the lawmaker was the "guest of honor." Invitees were given one night in the hotel for free, and paid reduced rates for the remainder of their stay.

Senior aides to Sharon were quoted Tuesday as saying they believed the scandal would blow over within 10 days, giving the voter ample time to forgive and, perhaps more importantly, forget.

Internal Likud polls quoted Tuesday showed a downturn in support, but no plunge. An internal survey quoted by Army Radio showed a decline of three to four seats from the 39 predicted two weeks ago.

In Labor, meanwhile, the results of a primary held last week may have made the party more amenable to a unity government, despite the flagging opposition of dovish Labor chief Mitzna.

"At the head of the Labor list, there are simply more people who are prepared to go to a unity government at virtually any cost, as compared to people who are more cautious on the issue and don't care for the idea."

The primaries demonstrated that the Israeli public wants to "have it all," Eldar argues. "Both in the Likud and in Labor, the message was that, on the one hand, people want the more moderate candiate - Sharon over Bibi [Netanyahu], Mitzna over Fuad [former defense minister and Labor chief Benjamin Ben-Eliezer]. They then were given an opportunity to 'balance' their choice, and picked a more hawkish list for Knesset, in order to 'rein in' the party leaders."

The bottom line is in ranking five former unity cabinet ministers in its list's top 10, Labor "effectively voted for a unity government," Eldar concludes. "This shows that the public really does not believe that the situation can be changed. It wants the situation to change, but has lost hope that such a thing is possible."