The investigation of the money trail to Sharon has been underway for over three years, and in fact was first publicized before the last national election, in 2003. The case is known as the Cyril Kern affair, named for the South African friend of Sharon who served as a conduit for the money. The source of the cash, however, has long been suspected to be Austrian millionaire and Jericho casino owner Martin Schlaff. The police say the money was used partially to help Sharon pay back campaign contributions that he had received illegally in 1999, and partly for the Sharon family's private use.

Because of the suspicions hanging over him, Schlaff has refrained from visiting Israel of late. His brother James, however, came for a visit two weeks ago - and the police jumped at the opportunity. They raided his parents' home in Israel, and confiscated documents and two laptop computers. However, the police were not permitted to extricate the information on the computers without James' permission - which he refused to give.

Schlaff's refusal aroused the suspicion of the police, which turned urgently to the courts and said that the computer files will show that the $3 million was in fact passed as a bribe to Ariel Sharon or his sons. The police therefore say that it is imperative for them to be allowed to enter the computers in order to extricate vital evidence in the Kern-Sharon affair.

Aware of the developments, James Schlaff has since given his permission for the police to peruse his computer files.

The Schlaffs' lawyer, Atty. Navot Tel-Tzur, said there was actually nothing new in the case "except for the fact that there is a small computer involved." He expressed anger at the leak. Kadima party officials similarly downplayed the news.

The senior Austrian judicial investigator in the case feels that Sharon had likely been bribed. Israel asked Austria in August 2004 for assistance in the investigation of what was thought to be a loan, which originated in the Vienna-based BAWAG bank. The prosecutor, Gerhard Jarosch, said there was "no plausible reason, other than bribery, that so much money should go to the Sharon family. The reasons given by the Sharons were meager and insufficient."

Martin Schlaff is a major shareholder in the Oasis Casino in Jericho. Police suspect that he gave Sharon the money in the hope that the casino would be re-opened. The casino was closed in late 2000 following the outbreak of the Oslo War. It had often reported a daily turnover of close to a million dollars.

With national elections only 12 weeks away, the news against Sharon - founder of the front-running Kadima Party - takes on particular public urgency. Outgoing MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz) said, "Ariel Sharon is the big apple. When he becomes rotten, there goes the whole crate." He called on Sharon to resign.

Labor MK Yuli Tamir: "If the reports are true, the Prime Minister must suspend himself. It's time to detach the bonds between political power and money."

Likud MK Michael Eitan: "The Prime Minister must stand before the public and either deny the charges, or clarify how he received the money."

Kadima MK Roni Bar-on stood steadfastly behind Sharon: "This is merely a last-ditch effort to revive a dying investigation."

National Religious Party leader MK Zevulun Orlev said, "We can't hold an election campaign when such a heavy cloud of bribery is hovering over the Prime Minister's head... The Attorney General must decide without delay whether to indict Sharon or not."

Likud MK Ayoub Kara attacked the corruption of the Sharon family, and said, "The public demands total transparency from the Prime Minister - and not just regarding his physical health."