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Polls: Sharon, Likud bouncing back

Elections for prime minister, Knesset on January 28

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meeting with members of Israel's Olympic committee Monday, is back up in polls before the January 28 election.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meeting with members of Israel's Olympic committee Monday, is back up in polls before the January 28 election.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party has reversed its slide, polls showed Monday, and is gaining strength after a stormy news conference yanked off the air by Israeli election officials.

Israeli voters will go to the polls January 28. Sharon's principal rival is Amram Mitzna, the leader of the Labor Party.

Polls published in two Israeli newspapers Monday showed that if the election were held now Likud would win as many as 32 seats in the nation's 120-member parliament, the Knesset. The number is up from 27 seats predicted last week.

The Labor Party had slipped from an expected 26 seats down to 20, the polls showed.

Likud insiders said it appeared that Likud voters who had been wavering had decided to come home to the party.

Sharon went on Israeli television Thursday in an attempt to put to rest a scandal over a $1.5 million loan made to his sons to pay back an illegal campaign contribution. The prime minister said he had done nothing wrong.

When Sharon launched an attack on Mitzna and the Labor Party, the head of Israel's Central Elections Committee ordered Israeli television channels to pull him off the air. (Full story)

Michael Cheshin, the head of the elections committee, said Sharon was violating an Israeli law against broadcasting political "propaganda" in the month before the election.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the $1.5 million loan continued. The loan was made by Cyril Kern, a British man who lives and works in South Africa.

During last week's news conference, Sharon said Kern "has no business here, he has never had any, and I don't think he ever will have."

But the Israeli daily Maariv published correspondence it said shows Kern tried to involve Israelis in deals to buy a gold refinery and millions of dollars' worth of diamonds.

The newspaper said that in the correspondence Kern boasted of his friendship with Sharon and said Sharon's son Gilad was his godson.

It is illegal under Israeli law to use foreign money in political campaigns.

Israeli prosecutors have contacted the South African Justice Ministry in an attempt to determine how the loan was made and whether Sharon's sons, Gilad and Omri, misled Israel's comptroller over how their father would pay back the illegal campaign contribution.

A spokesman for the South African Justice Ministry, Paul Setsetse, said Justice Minister Penuell Maduna would appoint a magistrate to investigate the loan. Investigators, he said, would try to determine whether Kern had violated any of South Africa's currency exchange rules.

Israel's comptroller had ruled that the $1.5 million contribution, which Sharon had during his 1999 campaign to become leader of the Likud party, was illegal. He ruled then that Sharon broke no law but ordered him to repay the funds.

The $1.5 million from Kern was used by Sharon's sons to finance another loan that was used to pay back the contribution.

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