Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz ruled on Thursday that the Likud Party leadership election campaign has officially been under way since at least August 7, 2005.
That would mean that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have violated the Political Party Law's campaign funding limit by attending a $10,000-a-plate dinner in his honor in New York last September.
The funding limit for foreign contributors according to the Political Parties Law is $7,894 per family.
Mazuz's ruling contradicted an opinion written on October 23 by Eitan Haberman, the Likud's legal adviser.
Haberman wrote that according to the law, the restrictions on campaign funding go into force nine months before the date of the primary election of the party leader. These nine months are defined as the "campaign period."
According to the Likud constitution, there is no set date for the primary election and it is up to the Likud central committee to set it before each primary on an ad hoc basis. Since the central committee has not yet set a date for the primary, the "election period" has not yet begun.
Mazuz disagreed. According to his opinion, the Likud constitution also stipulates that the internal party primary must be held no later than six months before the national election. According to a decision handed down last year by the High Court of Justice, the latest possible date for the next national election is November 7, 2006.
This means that even if the elections were to be held at the very last minute, the Likud primary would have to be held at least six months earlier (i.e. May 7, 2006) and the "campaign period" would begin no later than nine months before that (i.e. August 7, 2005.)
The controversial dinner for Sharon was held in September 2005, during a triumphant visit to New York, where he addressed the United Nations after disengagement. New York Zionist activist Nina Rosenwald held a dinner in Sharon's honor for which she charged 15 couples $10,000 each and told them it was for the prime minister's upcoming campaign for the Likud party leadership.
Reporters traveling with Sharon broke the story of the dinner and charged that the prime minister had violated the political funding restriction that applied to internal primary races.
At the time, Sharon said he knew nothing about the money.
"We know of no money that was asked for or collected or spoken about at that dinner," the Prime Minister's Office declared in an official statement in the wake of the accusations. According to his aides, Sharon was invited to the house of Rosenwald, an old friend, and remained there half an hour.
After receiving Mazuz's opinion, Haberman said that it was the attorney-general who had the last word.