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Bribery Case Against Sharon Is Closed

Israel's attorney general cites paucity of evidence in declining to proceed. Step opens up possibility of Labor Party forging alliance with premier.

June 16, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel's attorney general announced Tuesday that there was insufficient evidence to indict Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on bribery charges, a decision likely to give fresh political impetus to the Israeli leader's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

With the threat of indictment hanging over his head in recent months, Sharon has been unable to forge an alliance with the left-leaning Labor Party, which supports his plan to pull Israeli troops and Jewish settlers out of Gaza but did not want to formally join forces unless the bribery case was dropped.

The decision by Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz against indicting the prime minister sets the stage for a possible reshuffling of Sharon's coalition.

The Israeli leader, who was left presiding over a minority government after firing two right-wing ministers and seeing a third resign over the Gaza plan, has been limping through parliamentary no-confidence votes and staving off attacks from within his own Cabinet over the initiative to withdraw from the seaside territory.

The attorney general's decision, following two months of deliberations, was telegraphed well in advance through news reports based on leaks from Mazuz's office. In the end, he opted to reject a recommendation from state prosecutor Edna Arbel that Sharon stand trial.

The exoneration was a qualified one, however. Rather than proclaiming the prime minister's innocence, the attorney general declared that the proof at hand did not justify propelling the case forward.

"The evidence in this case does not bring us even remotely close to the reasonable possibility of conviction," Mazuz said in his 80-page decision, parts of which he read aloud at a televised news conference.

Mazuz delivered word of his decision to the prime minister prior to making it public. Israeli media reported that Sharon said only: "Thank you."

An indictment could have not only scuttled the Gaza initiative but ended Sharon's tenure as well. The 76-year-old leader never promised to step down if the case moved forward, but political analysts had said it would be difficult for him to remain in office in such an eventuality.

The bribery allegations stemmed from a complicated case dating to the late 1990s, when Sharon was foreign minister. Real-estate magnate David Appel allegedly paid Sharon's son Gilad hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve as a consultant in the development of an island resort in Greece, even though the younger Sharon had little or no relevant experience.

Sharon and his son denied any wrongdoing. The resort was never built.

With the threat of indictment removed, the prime minister and Labor were expected to embark on mutual overtures. But Labor leader Shimon Peres said an agreement to join Sharon's coalition was by no means assured.

"We are not in anyone's pocket," Peres told Army Radio.

Israeli news reports have said that Labor's terms for joining Sharon's government would probably include a demand that the post of foreign minister go to Peres.

Sharon's political opponents on the left and right expressed disappointment over the attorney general's decision. Lawmaker Zvi Hendel, who lives in a settlement in Gaza, suggested that Mazuz was afraid of being seen as the man who derailed the prime minister's pullout plan.

The leftist Yahad party said it would ask the Supreme Court to overturn the attorney general's ruling. Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, however, said he considered the attorney general's ruling "the end of the affair."

The prime minister still faces other corruption-related allegations, though they are not expected to cloud the political horizon any time soon.

Israeli authorities are looking into whether a 2001 loan made by a South African businessman, Cyril Kern, amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.

The prime minister envisions a pullout from Gaza, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live among more than 1.2 million Palestinians, that would be completed by the end of next year. Bowing to pressure from opponents, Sharon modified his plan to stipulate that the withdrawal would be carried out in four phases, each one requiring Cabinet approval.

Commentators called the prime minister's shaking off of his legal woes a blow to foes within his party, particularly Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Sharon has a good tailwind now," said pollster Hanan Kristal.

In concert with the dismantling of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, the prime minister is seeking to cement Israel's hold on large West Bank settlement blocks. Sharon's government has indicated that some of those uprooted from Gaza could be transplanted to the West Bank.

Israeli media said Tuesday that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had drawn up plans to build hundreds of homes in the Gush Etzion settlement block, 12 miles south of Jerusalem, to house Gaza settlers. That would be in defiance of calls by the United States and others to halt new settlement construction.

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