JERUSALEM – Fighting back against corruption allegations that could cost him the premiership, Ariel Sharon accused the opposition Labor Party of slander, before being yanked off the air by a judge monitoring fairness in Israel's election campaign.
"Shut Up Live," read a front-page headline Friday in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, commenting on the unprecedented decision by Judge Mishael Cheshin, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, to stop live TV and radio broadcasts of Sharon's prime-time news conference Thursday.
Stations are banned from broadcasting "election propaganda" in the month before the Jan. 28 general election, except in special blocs set aside for campaign spots. Sharon's news conference continued without live coverage.
Sharon is under police investigation for a $1.5 million loan from a South Africa-based businessman. His right-wing Likud party is also fighting off charges of underworld involvement and corruption in its internal elections.
The wave of scandals has wiped out most of his lead in the polls. Sharon now appears to face a virtual election tie, raising the possibility that dovish Amram Mitzna of Labor, who opposes Sharon's harsh policies toward the Palestinians, could form the next Israeli government.
Newspaper columns Friday focused on the interruption of Sharon's address.
"His news conference yesterday will be remembered mostly because it wasn't broadcast," wrote political commentator Nahum Barnea in Yediot. "Closing the microphone on a prime minister can be called a historic incident."
The law banning "election propaganda" dates from a time when Israel had only one TV channel and two radio stations. Cheshin said earlier that he would enforce the law rigorously this year in an attempt to show that it must be repealed.
In the news conference, Sharon denied knowledge of the loan his sons took to cover the return of improper campaign funds from an earlier election. He insisted he had documents to prove he did nothing wrong and charged that Labor cooked up the scandals because it was behind in the polls.
"I never imagined that the behavior of the Labor party would be so irresponsible," he said. "They tried to turn all of us into the mafia, into organized crime, and all for the sake of politics."
Rejecting Labor's demands that he resign because of the scandals, Sharon said he would not step down "because of a political provocation."
Sharon said his son Gilad arranged the loan to help him repay what Israel's state comptroller decided was an improper campaign contribution from an earlier election, and that the loan was properly reported to the authorities.
"I did not know exactly how the money was obtained," Sharon maintained. "Everything was done the proper way ... There is no bribery.
"If the police want to come and interrogate me, let them come and ask questions. I have nothing to hide."
Avraham Burg, a leading Labor legislator, ridiculed Sharon's explanations. "A prime minister doesn't know what's going on in his own pocket?" Burg said. "How does he know what's going on in Israel?"
Also Thursday, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Election Commission rulings and permitted two Arab Israeli candidates to stand for re-election.
Last week the partisan commission, voting along party lines, tried to disqualify them, charging that they supported Palestinian violence, but the court allowed them to run.
The ruling could be critical to the election outcome. Israeli Arabs make up more than one-sixth of Israel's population and traditionally vote heavily for left-wing parties.
Sharon called elections in November after Labor bolted his "national unity" government in a dispute over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Initial polls showed Sharon's Likud Party and its right-wing allies winning a comfortable majority in parliament.
The scandals have taken their toll, according to polls published Thursday that showed Likud and its bloc with only a tiny majority. Labor and its dovish allies still trail, with centrist parties apparently holding a pivotal role at this point.