Jerusalem, Jan. 1 (Reuters): Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has fired a deputy Cabinet minister in a bid to contain damage from a vote-buying scandal that has cut into support for his Likud party a month before Israelís general election.
In the increasingly chaotic build-up to the January 28 national ballot, Israel's election commission voted early today to bar an Arab party and its leader, an outspoken supporter of Palestinian statehood, from running for parliament.
Hours earlier, Sharon rang in the new year with the dismissal of deputy national infrastructure minister Naomi Blumenthal for refusing to answer police questions about alleged fraud surrounding a recent Likud party election, aides said.
Sharon had vowed publicly to expel any party members tainted by a scandal swirling around the Likud's selection of its list of top parliamentary candidates.
Police are investigating allegations that Likud activists used cash and favours to bribe members of the party's 2,940-strong Central Committee, which picked candidates in early December. Several activists have been arrested.
Opinion polls show the Right-wing Likud heavily favoured to win the election, giving Sharon a second term as Prime Minister.
But the vote-buying scandal has eroded Likud's once-commanding lead built on public support for Sharon's tough crackdown on Palestinians waging a 27-month-old uprising for independence.