Indictment looms for Israel's Sharon

Prosecutor drafting charge sheet linking premier to bribery

March 28, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel's state prosecutor plans to recommend that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon be indicted on charges of accepting bribes from a real estate developer while serving as foreign minister five years ago, Israeli news media reported last night.

The news agencies reported that the prosecutor, Edna Arbel, was drafting a charge sheet that she intends to present in the coming days to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who has the final say. Officials said it could be several months before a decision is made.

Still, last night's news, first reported by Israel's Channel 2 television, added further uncertainty to Sharon's future in office. An indictment could force him to step down from his post until the matter is resolved, depending on how lawyers interpret Israeli law.

In January, real estate developer David Appel was indicted on charges of trying to bribe Sharon with about $700,000 in exchange for using his influence to promote an island resort project in Greece.

The indictment implied wrongdoing on Sharon's part but offered no direct evidence to suggest that Sharon knew he was being bribed or reciprocated in any way.

But the indictment of Appel, who has yet to be tried, raised serious questions about Sharon's conduct when he served as foreign minister under a different government. Sharon has adamantly professed his innocence and has said he would not resign as prime minister.

One of Sharon's spokesmen, Asi Hariv, said last night, "We do not comment on internal debates in the state's attorney's office."

Other aides said that the media leaks were part of a conspiracy by political opponents to pressure the attorney general to indict.

Mazuz, who was appointed to his post in February and inherited the Sharon investigation, declined to comment.

Israeli Radio reported that aides close to Mazuz called the case "a complex file, and one must prove that [Sharon] had an intention to give something in return for the bribe that he allegedly received."

`Suspend himself'

Members of the opposition called for Sharon to relinquish his office.

Labor Party member Yuli Tamir, on Israel Radio, urged Sharon to "suspend himself immediately."

Shinui Party Chairman Reshef Cheyne said that any trial should be done quickly "so if he is innocent, he can return to his post."

This new development in this drawn-out case dubbed the "Greek Island Affair" comes as Sharon pushes a "disengagement plan" to separate from the Palestinians that requires the evacuation of Jewish settlers, angering the political right, and about two weeks before Sharon is to meet with President Bush to garner support for his proposal.

Sharon is also facing domestic strife and the prospect of renewed violence after the army's assassination last week of the spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has vowed revenge, frightening citizens and causing tourists to cancel plans for the Passover holiday.

The previous two prime ministers were also investigated by police but were not charged.

Sharon is also being investigated by police in the matter of a $1.5 million loan used to repay illegal foreign campaign contributions.

Test case

It remains unclear whether Sharon would have to step down as prime minister, even temporarily, if indicted. In 1999, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Cabinet Minister Arieh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party had to quit upon his indictment on bribery charges.

Deri was convicted and jailed for two years. His case is widely viewed as a test case for government officials charged with crimes.

But legal experts caution that a charge involving a sitting prime minister is far more complicated because it could effect the entire government.

The indictment against Appel says that starting in 1999 he hired Sharon's son, Gilad, 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, "impress them and get them to favor the project," which required a zoning change to move ahead.

Appel is charged with paying for the mayor of Athens to visit Jerusalem in July 1999 and dine with then-Mayor Ehud Olmert and Sharon.

In return, the indictment says, Appel allegedly recruited an election staff and paid the dues for new members of Sharon's Likud Party.

Olmert, who is now minister of industry and a confidant of Sharon, is not to be indicted, Israeli news media reported last night.

Prosecutors allege that Gilad Sharon received about $100,000 and later transferred $690,000 in seven payments to a family-controlled partnership that owns Sharon's ranch in the Negev desert. The resort was never built.

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