On the eve of Ariel Sharon's catheterization, with everyone aware of the suspicions that the prime minister is involved in corruption and bribery affairs, the public has given him 42 Knesset seats, according to a Haaretz poll - three seats more than two weeks ago. How can this happen? Is no one worried about his health? Does no one care that acts of corruption and bribery have been committed?
Sharon's entanglement began in 1999 during the Likud primary against Ehud Olmert and Meir Sheetrit. A committee headed by MK Avraham Poraz determined that each candidate could spend up to NIS 830,000 in campaign expenses. Olmert and Sheetrit stayed within the limitations. Sharon - via his son Omri - didn't give a hoot about the limitations, and spent the huge sum of NIS 5.5 million - 6.6 times the ceiling.
Sharon won big time, but what is that if not corruption? For if Olmert and Sheetrit had spent similar sums, perhaps they would have been the winners. After all, an election campaign costs a lot of money: newspaper ads, billboards, election meetings, vote contractors. In other words, Sharon obviously had bought power with money.
Sharon was convinced he was immune. He did not believe anyone would seriously investigate how much he spent. The state comptroller thought otherwise. He checked, discovered the huge excess expenditure, and told Sharon he must return NIS 4.7 million of the amount.
Had Sharon and his sons been an ordinary family that feared the law, Omri would have been sent to the state comptroller to tell him, "It's true. I raised too much money. It wasn't possible to run an election campaign with only NIS 830,000. But the money already has been spent, and we don't have NIS 4.7 million to return." In this case, the state comptroller would have been forced to offer a debt payment settlement, a partial write-off, installments - as is customary in similar cases.
But the Sharon family felt it was untouchable. Sharon already was prime minister following his big victory over Ehud Barak, and was dazzled by his power. He knew that the family had many rich friends around the world who would be happy to give him a little loan. After all, those in power have many ways to "help" the rich get richer afterward.
Thus the entanglement started. Because always, and this is a well-known rule, the imbroglio begins with the cover-up attempts rather than the affair itself. The first to be enlisted was Cyril Kern, a South African resident, who gave the family a loan guarantee of $1.5 million, then Martin Schlaff, a casino tycoon, including the one in Jericho, whom the police say funneled additional large sums.
But how is it that although all this has been known to the public for three years, Sharon still is supported by such an overwhelming majority?
Because Sharon is seen today as a big promise. He is perceived as one of a kind who can bring the bloody conflict with the Palestinians to an end - that is, deliver the big quiet most Israeli citizens yearn for, as proved by all the polls.
Had Sharon succeeded in the current term not only to pull out of Gaza, but to reach a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians, the public would have thanked him - and then kicked him out of office immediately for acts of corruption. Winston Churchill was removed from power two months after the great victory over the Germans, because the public wanted a new agenda.
In politics there is no gratitude - the possibility of delivering what the nation wants now is all that counts. Because Sharon has not delivered, but merely promised, voters are willing to accept his acts and wait.
Therefore, it's not important what Omri's verdict will be, or whether the police recommend indicting Sharon. The public will continue to ignore Sharon's foibles as long as they believe he might reach an agreement to stop the cycle of violence with the Palestinians. If you need a thief, you'll even pluck one off the gallows.
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