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Ariel Sharon was occupied at David Ben Gurion's graveside down south and didn't turn up for Tzahi Hanegbi's press conference in Tel-Aviv Wednesday morning, but his representatives were there.
Kadima spokesman Shmulik Dahan and Sharon's strategic advisor Lior Horev stage-managed the conference. There presence was a clear message that Hanegbi's belated defection had a blessing from the top.
Since Sharon has left nothing to chance in all his actions over the last month, every step, especially the choice of new recruits to the party, was deliberated over and decided upon only after extensive polling, evidently the open-arms welcome was also calculated.
Sharon's rivals in other parties gleefully pounced on the seemingly lousy timing of Hanegbi's move, on the same day that the police completed it's investigations into the dozens of political appointments he had made in the Environment Ministry and their recommendation to press charges. They believe that this one frog too many for the public to swallow.
Sharon's supporters shuddered, that's all they need now, Kadima already has a problematic image as the party of corruption, Hanegbi can only add on to that burden. But Sharon and his advisors were aware of this, the reports on the police recommendation began coming out already on Monday, and after taking this into consideration, they still decided to go ahead. At the press conference, Hanegbi easily deflected the questions on his legal predicament. The consummate media performer had been well prepared by the spin-doctors.
The Sharon team's assumption is that the prime minister's popularity is so high right now that the public just don't care about the allegations of corruption. There is ample proof for this, the 2002 elections were also held beneath the shadow of new relevations regarding the Cyril Kern and Greek Island scandals, implicating Sharon and his sons and that didn't impede Sharon's landslide.
His current surge in the polls is also seen as proof of public apathy towards the issue. Sharon's advisors are also confident that any anti-corruption campaign by Labor or the Likud will turn out to be a boomerang. In off the record briefings, they have said that new exposes are soon to appear in the press on corruption amongst their rivals, especially new details on the way Amir Peretz used Histadrut funds and facilities to further his political goals.
Kadima's strategists believe that Hanegbi's move will turn out to be the killer-punch that will deliver final death to any hopes that the Likud have of rebounding in these elections.
Hanegbi himself is of little, if any, electoral value, no-one sees him as a vote-bringer. The main benefit he brings to Kadima is the bolstering of the image of the Likud as a house on fire, where many of the inhabitants have decided to run for their lives instead of giving a hand with the water-pipe.
Ultimately Sharon has just made a major gamble on Hanegbi, will he prove to be the pebble heralding Likud's avalanche, or as Sharon's many ill-wishers hope, turn out to be the pin that will burst the balloon of the new party.
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