Tel Aviv (Jun. 23)
Shmuel Flatto-Sharon’s one-man “Development and Peace” party is probably the most curious of the more than two dozen lists that will present themselves to Israeli voters in the Knesset elections next Tues day.
When he first stood for election four years ago, Flatto was a new immigrant who neither spoke nor understood Hebrew. Hanging over his head was an extradition request from France where he was wanted to stand trial on charges of illegal financial transactions, embezzlement and fraud. To everyone’s surprise, he won an unexpected large vote, almost sufficient in fact to obtain three seats in the ninth Knesset. The votes were largely wasted inasmuch as Flatto was the sole candidate on his “list.”
His entry into the Knesset granted him automatic immunity from extradition. The French tried him in absentia, found him guilty and pronounced sentence to be enforced if he ever returned to France.
But Flatto’s troubles with the law were not ended. The large vote he garnered in May, 1977 aroused suspicion. While part of it could be attributed to sympathy for an underdog, “persecuted” by the French, investigations found irregularities. He was found guilty of bribing voters, for which a Jerusalem district court has sentenced him to one year in jail.
His Hebrew now greatly improved, Flatto insists he is innocent. His claim is that whatever he did in his election campaign four years ago was done by every other party. The haste with which his fellow-MKs voted — at the final session of the outgoing Knesset — to bar him from the chamber may indeed show a measure of guilty conscience on their part. In any event, Flatto, a loner, was always regarded as something of an upstart by his colleagues.
The vote, which froze his Knesset salary even before he had a chance to appeal the court’s verdict, was regarded by some as vindictive. But Flatto says he never took his salary but donated it to special projects. He is, in fact, a multi-millionaire by Israeli standards and his lifestyle corresponds. His expensive villa in the exclusive Savyon suburb of Tel Aviv has been described as palatial. It is filled with priceless paintings and sculptures line its imported marble floors.
During the past four years, Flatto has established a number of free or nearly free dental clinics throughout the country. Those who utilize that service may vote for him as indeed may others who still see him as an underdog, persecuted this time by the Israeli establishment.
The platform of the “Development and Peace” party is couched in general terms. Flatto promises that if re-elected, he will utilize his financial expertise to set Israel’s economy on the road to recovery. His financial acumen is hardly to be questioned. It raised him from the status of a poor Polish immigrant to a multi-millionnaire in France over a period of a few years. In light of the subsequent developments, he may be too talented in the murkier areas of high finance. Should Flatto win re-election, Israel will face a difficult constitutional problem: What happens to a one-man party if its lone member is in jail? Can the Knesset sit with 119 members when the mandatory number is 120? The legal experts may soon be called upon to solve that dilemma.