Sharon Fires Deputy Minister in Election Scandal

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday fired a deputy minister to contain damage from a party corruption scandal ahead of Jan. 28 elections, and the Election Commission disqualified a second Israeli Arab candidate.

Sharon fired Naomi Blumenthal, deputy minister of infrastructure and a longtime member of parliament from Sharon's Likud Party, for refusing to answer police questions about alleged misdeeds in the selection of Likud candidates for parliament, said Sharon campaign spokesman Lior Chorev.

The list was picked in a Dec. 8 vote by the 2,940-strong Likud Central Committee, and police have been investigating charges of payoffs, bribery and other corruption in the process.

Blumenthal was called in for questioning on Sunday but invoked her right to remain silent. Sharon has said that any Likud member tainted by the corruption scandal would be expelled from the party.

Sharon's party is heavily favored to win the election, giving Sharon another term as prime minister, but polls show that the election corruption allegations could cost the party several seats in parliament.

Meanwhile, Israel's Election Commission disqualified a leading Israeli Arab lawmaker from running in Jan. 28 elections, the second such move in two days, leading experts to warn of a widening rift between Jewish and Arab Israelis and a threat to Israeli democracy.

The commission, made up of representatives of political parties, voted 22-19 early Wednesday to disqualify Azmi Bishara and banned his Balad party by a vote of 21-20, said commission spokesman Giora Pordes.

Bishara, like other Arab members of parliament, has spoken out strongly in support of Palestinian aspirations for an independent state.

Unlike others, Bishara took part in a gathering in Damascus, where he sat next to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, sworn enemies of Israel, and made a speech interpreted by many as endorsing violence against Israel. Attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein recommended banning Bishara.

Bishara charged that party politics ruled the commission. "We never called for of supported, implicitly or explicitly, armed struggle in any form," he said. "I have spoken of the rights of a people under occupation ... to resist occupation."

On Monday, the panel, voting along political party lines, banned another Arab legislator, Ahmed Tibi, from running again. Tibi, an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before being elected to the Israeli parliament in 1999, denied charges that he backed Palestinian violence.

More than two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting has further alienated Israel's Arab minority, who have long protested they are treated as second-class citizens by the Israeli government. Arabs make up about one sixth of Israel's population.

With few exceptions, Israeli Arabs have not participated in the fighting, although most identify with the Palestinian demand for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, the panel approved the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, a past associate of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded a movement based on expelling Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. The movement was later outlawed as racist, and the U.S.-born Kahane, who served a term in the parliament, was assassinated in New York in 1990.

All three decisions are to be reviewed by Israel's Supreme Court next week.

The votes -- disqualifying Arab legislators while approving a well-known Jewish anti-Arab extremist -- spell trouble for Israeli society and democracy, according to experts.