Developer indicted in bid to bribe Sharon, son

If widened, investigation could topple Israeli leader

January 22, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - An Israeli court indicted a real estate developer yesterday on charges of trying to bribe Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the late 1990s when he was foreign minister, raising questions about Sharon's conduct and his future in office.

Sharon has been fending off allegations of corruption for years, but yesterday's indictment implicates him, his son Gilad and a former mayor of Jerusalem in a secret agreement allegedly involving the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for Sharon using his influence to promote a resort project in Greece.

Israel Radio reported last night that the Justice Ministry would decide within a few weeks whether to broaden the indictment to include Sharon. If indicted, Sharon might be forced to resign, depending on how the government interprets a recent ruling by Israel's Supreme Court.

Sharon has denounced past allegations of corruption as "scornful libel," but he made no comment yesterday. Aides said he had no plans to step down. "The issues are not connected to him," said his spokesman, Raanan Gissin. "He is continuing his work as usual."

Members of the opposition Labor Party called on Sharon to resign immediately.

Allegations of corruption are an almost routine part of Israeli politics, and Sharon's two predecessors as prime minister were investigated for wrongdoing but never charged. Sharon remains the focus of a police investigation into a $1.5 million loan used to repay illegal foreign campaign contributions.

The indictment filed yesterday in the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court against developer David Appel gave a detailed account of prosecutor's case against the developer. Though the indictment implies wrongdoing on Sharon's part, it offers no direct evidence that Sharon knew he was being bribed or that he returned any favors.

The indictment alleges that Appel asked Sharon to lobby Greek officials to clear the way for construction of Appel's resort. At one point, the indictment says, Appel told Sharon that he and his son could earn "good money" if the project went ahead as planned.

The resort was never built.

Appel is also accused of paying membership dues for some members of Sharon's Likud Party in 1999, to help Sharon and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert secure top positions in party elections.

Appel's attorney, Moshe Israel, told Israeli Radio that his client is innocent. "There was no bribery," Israel said. "There was no one who gave a bribe and there was no one who accepted a bribe. Is it logical that in all cases, only Appel had a motive, but the other side had no motive? The court will exonerate him."

A trial is scheduled for March.

The indictment says that in 1999 Appel began planning to build a resort on the Greek island of Patrokios. Greek authorities, however, considered the land to be an archaeological site, making it difficult to obtain building permits. To make the project affordable, the property would have to be reclassified as ordinary land.

According to prosecutors, Appel enlisted the help of Gilad Sharon and hired him as a $10,000-a-month marketing consultant. The indictment says that Appel wanted Gilad to persuade his father "to invite [Greek officials] to Israel under some official guise, have them meet people with senior positions in Israel, impress them and get them to favor the project."

The indictment says that Appel paid for the mayor of Athens to visit Jerusalem for five days in July 1999 and dine with Olmert at the King David Hotel and at Olmert's residence - an event that Sharon attended.

In return, the indictment says, Appel allegedly recruited a 31-person election staff for Sharon and Olmert and paid up to $15,000 for the dues of new Likud members.

Olmert, now minister of industry, denied any wrongdoing yesterday.

Prosecutors allege that Gilad Sharon received about $100,000 but that he had been promised up to $3 million. The indictment also says Appel transferred about $690,000 in seven payments to a family-controlled partnership that owns Sharon's ranch in the Negev desert.

"Appel and Gilad came to an agreement, even though Appel knew that Gilad did not have the relevant professional skills, to pay out inflated amounts of money to Ariel Sharon's son with a purpose of influencing Ariel Sharon in his public positions," the indictment says.

It alleges the services provided by Gilad "fall considerably short from the value of the payments he received."

Though the indictment offers the most detailed version of events made public to date, the case has been the subject of headlines for months, with Israeli newspapers describing secretly taped conversations between Appel and Gilad Sharon and publishing transcripts of police interviews.

Israeli television has repeatedly aired a video showing Gilad Sharon talking to an unidentified man, purportedly a police detective, and telling him that the case would end badly. When asked by the man how badly, Gilad is shown holding his hands in front of his face as if they were handcuffed.

Political experts called the indictment explosive.

"In my opinion, [Sharon] is not going to finish the Hebrew calendar year," said Menachem Hofnung, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, referring to the year that ends in September. "There are things in the indictment that go directly to him.

"This will affect his position in public opinion, and his [political] heirs will demand his resignation," Hofnung said. "The only thing that can save him is if he ends his silence and gives a convincing explanation."

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