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The Sharon family is in the top one-thousandth of Israeli society, economically speaking. In addition to its ranch, which spreads over many dunams and employs foreign workers who live there, it also owns an expensive house in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, another house in Tel Aviv, property in Kfar Malal and other assets. Israel's prime minister is a wealthy man, who could have mortgaged some of his assets in order to repay the money he owed to Annex Research - the firm that, according to the State Comptroller's Report, was one of the straw companies that financed Sharon's election campaign in 1999.

Any honest citizen - and all the more so a prime minister - would have sold or mortgaged his assets, if he had any, or taken a loan from the bank in order to pay a debt that he had promised to pay out of his own pocket. But Sharon chose a different route: He put his sons, Omri and Gilad, in charge of handling the matter, and a South African businessman, Cyril Kern, transferred $1.49 million to their accounts. In other words, Sharon, who based on the State Comptroller's Report is suspected of violating the campaign finance laws, tried to fix the violation by what appears, prima facie, to be a new violation.

At the hasty press conference that Sharon's spokesmen convened yesterday, the press was told that Gilad Sharon was forced to take the loan from Kern because he was experiencing financial difficulties. Financial difficulties? Two years ago, Gilad Sharon received more than $500,000 from David Appel in the "Greek island" deal, as an agreement between them that was published in Yedioth Ahronoth last week makes clear. Every Israeli should have such financial difficulties.

Another prong in Sharon's attack on yesterday's Ha'aretz report was that Cyril Kern is an old friend of his, and since he is a friend, there is no suspicion of bribery. But the question is, why did Sharon's sons need financial assistance from a foreign resident? And why did the two hasten to repay the loan a week ago, with 3 percent interest, as the prime minister's spokesmen said yesterday? How did Gilad and Omri finance the repayment? Did they suddenly discover a week ago that the Sharon family was no longer in financial trouble?

The affair of Sharon's loan from Kern is the climax - so far - of the Likud corruption scandal. Over the last few weeks, it has become clear that Sharon and his sons have a wide variety of friends: Shlomi Oz, a former criminal; Appel, constantly in and out of the police's interrogation rooms; the arms merchant Norman Skolnik, who is involved in the "Greek island" affair. Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are.

The polls still show that Sharon will put together the next government. But the day after the elections, the police will continue investigating. Omri will be forced to talk, and Ariel Sharon will have to clarify whether he told the truth to the state comptroller and the police investigators who questioned him about that affair. Benjamin Netanyahu may not be foreign minister in the next government, but he can already start preparing to replace Sharon.