Until now, the Israeli election campaign has seemed like a formality: The only question seemed to be how large a majority Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon would win when the ballots were counted.
Not any more. Pundits say a police investigation into allegations of corruption in the selection of its Knesset candidates could cost Likud enough seats to lose the election.
While the Labor Party is facing its own investigation, analysts say the scope of the Likud scandal could be enough to swing the Jan. 28 election to Labor.
According to the Likud's own internal polls, the scandal -- which broke last week with allegations that aspiring Knesset members had been asked to pay for political support -- already has cost Likud two or three seats. Party insiders say the trend seems to be continuing.
Before the scandal, polls showed the Likud's right-religious bloc leading Labor's left-center bloc by about 65 seats to 55, with parties likely to join their coalitions included. That means that a swing of just five or six seats from right to left could make Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna prime minister, not Sharon.
As Mitzna himself says, his dream is no longer "pie in the sky."
The trouble for the Likud started when several defeated candidates went public with stories of approaches from "vote contractors" offering to deliver votes in return for cash. There also were tales that members of the Central Committee, the 2,940-member body that chose the candidates, were wined and dined by would-be legislators.
Two members of the Central Committee were detained Monday and placed under house arrest Tuesday. The arrests were carried out by the Israeli police force's fraud division.
Some of the money for this heavy-duty canvassing was believed to come from underworld figures, some of whom recently joined Likud. Enigmatic reports surfaced in the press about "criminal families" having funded campaigns of Cabinet ministers and Knesset members, and of "current or past criminals" who had hosted senior ministers at their homes for lunch or dinner.
If the reports are true, would some of the Likud's representatives in the Knesset or in the Cabinet be beholden to their benefactors, political observers here asked.
What made the alleged extortion and funding attempts possible was the Likud's decision to switch from nationwide primaries back to a system in which the Central Committee chooses the party's Knesset list. Nationwide primaries would have put the decision in the hands of the Likud's 300,000-strong membership, making it virtually impossible to buy votes and difficult to put together decisive voting blocs.
In contrast, it's relatively easy to reach the much smaller pool of Central Committee members to make deals and deliver votes. Indeed, one of the Likud's means to deflect the criticism has been to blame the system.
Sharon, in fact, lost no time in asking Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit to suggest an alternative system. Likud spin doctors dutifully emphasized Sharon's courage in taking on the Central Committee and moving to divest it of its most important power.
Labor, which did hold nationwide primaries for its Knesset list and stood to gain most from the Likud's embarrassment, has not emerged entirely unscathed. Following a complaint from the Association for Good Government, Israel's attorney general ordered a police investigation into allegations of irregularities in two Labor Druse precincts.
Labor members argue, however, that alleged voting irregularities in just two of more than 600 precincts nationwide isn't akin to the large-scale buying and selling of votes by criminals.
The fact that both Likud and Labor are under investigation could help smaller parties in the Labor's left-center bloc, such as Shinui and Meretz, which have made cleaner politics part of their campaign platforms. Both Shinui and Meretz have been trying to pull voters from the two larger parties, and are getting set to play political hardball. They will be helped by the fact that Likud and Labor will fight viciously against each other.
The Likud had not planned on a negative campaign against Labor or its leader. Campaign strategists argued that to attack Mitzna, who is not so well-known, would give him free exposure. Now they have changed their minds.
Likud will attack Labor over the associations that helped finance Ehud Barak's victorious prime ministerial campaign in 1999, and which were subsequently the subject of a wide-ranging police investigation. It also will attack Mitzna for an American bank account set up in his father's name -- apparently quite legally -- to collect donations, and anything else they can dig up.
Labor is sure to keep the Likud bribery and corruption allegations on the public agenda for as long as possible. The campaign still will focus primarily on Israel's security and economic problems, but it will be accompanied by a degree of mudslinging no one anticipated this year.