A scandal involving allegations of rampant vote-buying and bribery has caused Ariel Sharon's ruling Likud to slide in the polls ahead of upcoming general elections.
Likud remains far ahead of the moderate Labor Party -- and Sharon is still considered a shoo-in for prime minister -- but a daily dose of scandal over the past week, including talk of possible involvement of organized crime, has taken its toll.
"It is clear that Likud is losing ground," said Akiva Eldar, a political analyst and columnist. "The shift in the polls show that people take this seriously. Sharon is very worried."
Likud held an internal primary on Dec. 8 in which 2,940 Likud Central Committee members chose Likud candidates for parliament. The scandal blew open when a political novice, a young waitress who hails from a family with casino interests and alleged underworld connections, finished ahead of popular figures like Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
Soon after, party whistleblowers and disappointed candidates began making allegations that candidates bribed committee members with cash and gifts such as free lodging at luxury hotels. The police and Attorney General Elkayim Rubinstein opened investigations.
One losing candidate, Haim Cohen, reportedly told authorities a committee member demanded a $70,000 bribe to guarantee a seat on the Likud slate for the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Cohen was quoted as saying the man approached him and "made a sign with his fingers that he wanted cash."
There are also claims that mob figures have permeated the Likud infrastructure: convicted racketeer Moussa Alperon is a new member of the Likud election committee, as is Shlomi Oz, who served 32 months in prison for extortion and conspiracy and once belonged to the notorious Alperon gang.
"This is the first time that criminal elements so bluntly promoted people to enter into the Knesset," said Menachem Amir, a criminology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There is a threat to democracy if your legislators represent crime groups. The very symbol of democracy is the legislator."
Meanwhile, Israeli media reported links between several crime families and Sharon's son Omri -- a backstage Likud wheeler-dealer who finished high in the primary.
Haaretz newspaper said Omri Sharon delivered party registration forms to the Jarushi clan -- some of whose members are allegedly involved in the drug trade -- and that the prime minister's son is friends with Oz.
In a rare television interview, the prime minister lashed out in vigorous defense of his son. "My son Omri had nothing to do with criminal elements who managed to get into the central committee," Sharon told Channel One.
It is unclear whether the scandal will boost the fortunes of the Labor Party, which has a credibility problem of its own. Investigators are looking into allegations of vote fraud during Labor's primary, especially in Druse villages.
Prior to the scandal, polls indicated Likud would win up to 40 seats in the 120-member parliament on Jan. 28, with Sharon expected to remain as prime minister. Labor was widely predicted to come in a distant second with about 20 seats.
But two surveys published Friday show the balance shifting.
A survey of 1,200 Israeli adults by Maariv newspaper showed Likud with 35 seats and Labor with 23, while a poll of 604 adults in Yediot Ahronoth predicted Likud would win only 33 seats and Labor would net 22 if the vote were held today. The margin of error for both polls was 4.5 percentage points.
Analysts are not yet envisioning a Likud defeat, but there is a growing belief that a Likud victory is no longer a foregone conclusion.
"The question is how many solid seats the Likud has, how low the party can go, and how high up in the party ranks the police investigation will reach," said Hemi Shalev, a columnist for Maariv.