Sharon fires deputy linked to vote buying

Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 9:07 p.m.
JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fired one of his top deputies Tuesday night after she refused to cooperate with the police, making her the first casualty of a vote-buying scandal that has embroiled his party as national elections approach.
Naomi Blumenthal, deputy minister for national infrastructure, was dismissed after she refused to answer questions about whether she had a role in paying for hotel rooms for senior Likud members who were to vote in the party's primary, according to the police and officials in the prime minister office.
The scandal has become an embarrassment to Sharon and his Likud party and has begun to eat into the party's projected lead in the elections scheduled for late January.
According to Israeli news accounts, the police are trying to determine whether Blumenthal and others paid hotel bills for a number of Likud central committee members, who later gave her a high-ranking place on the Likud ballot.
Last week, an Israeli police official seeking to question Blumenthal accused her of "going underground" and making herself unavailable for questioning. When she met with the police earlier this week, she refused to provide answers to their questions, a police official said.
Sharon, who has been trying to distance himself from the scandal, warned Blumenthal on Monday that he would fire her if she did not cooperate with the police.
According to the newspaper Haaretz, Sharon wrote Blumenthal a letter Tuesday in which he accused her of giving an "evasive response" about the affair and of damaging the reputation of Likud. "Your avoidance of giving answers taints a great movement that runs and will continue to run Israel's affairs, and in these circumstances I have no choice but to remove you from your post," he wrote.
The allegations about Blumenthal are one of many about Likud that are being investigated by the police. Some of the other allegations concern suspicions that influential Likud supporters may have been given preferential treatment in the awarding of a government contract.
Recent polls here have shown that the allegations have begun to undercut the public's support for Likud, though polls show the party is still likely to emerge from the election as the country's dominant party.

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