JERUSALEM — In a sharp escalation of a long-standing corruption scandal surrounding Ariel Sharon, the state prosecutor has recommended that the prime minister be indicted, Israeli media reported Saturday.
If the legal proceedings were to move forward against Sharon, who is accused of accepting bribes from an Israeli businessman, they could lead to the 76-year-old leader's ouster from office at a delicate moment in already foundering Mideast peace efforts.
But the indictment reportedly drafted by the prosecutor, Edna Arbel, would have to be approved by Israel's newly appointed attorney general, Menachem Mazuz -- a move that is far from certain.
The deepening imbroglio over the prime minister's financial dealings comes at a time when his domestic approval ratings have been sagging, his relations with the Bush administration are fraught with tension and Palestinians across the political spectrum are outraged over Israel's assassination last week of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas.
Although public opinion surveys have suggested that most Israelis approved of the "targeted killing" of Yassin, who was a driving force behind Hamas' campaign of suicide bombings during the 42-month-old Palestinian uprising, Israelis are also bracing for a ferocious new wave of retaliatory attacks by Palestinian militants in Israeli cities and towns.
Israeli law is somewhat ambiguous on the question of whether an indictment would force Sharon to step down. Legal scholars have said it would be possible, although extremely difficult politically, for a sitting prime minister to remain in office in the event of indictment. Judicial authorities said it could take Mazuz up to a month to act on the recommendation.
The prime minister, who denies any wrongdoing, has insisted that he would not step down. No Sharon spokesman was available to comment on the latest development.
Sharon's probable successors as head of the conservative Likud Party, and thus the likely inheritors of his post, have been careful to say little about the affair. The man who is best positioned to take over in the event of Sharon's departure -- Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister and now finance minister -- has been extremely circumspect on the subject.
The scandal's growing momentum comes at a time when Sharon is positioning himself to make a case to his U.S. allies for his so-called disengagement plan, which aims to separate Israel from the Palestinians. Although neither a timetable nor details have been released, the initiative's broad outlines call for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and an uprooting of a number of remote Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In exchange, however, Sharon will probably demand that Israel be allowed to retain several large Jewish settlement blocs close to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a move that Palestinians say would amount to a unilateral Israeli drawing of the borders of their hoped-for state.
The prime minister is expected to visit Washington in April to present arguments for the disengagement plan. The White House has expressed trepidation about various steps on Sharon's part, including the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and the construction of a barrier to seal off the West Bank from Israel.
A trio of senior U.S. envoys who have made two visits to the region in the last two months are due to visit again shortly to seek details about Sharon's plans.
The financial scandal centers on Sharon's dealings during the late 1990s with Israeli businessman David Appel, who has already been charged with bribery. Appel is accused of making payments to Sharon's son Gilad and of providing political and financial assistance to Sharon when he was running for the leadership of his party.
Appel allegedly acted in exchange for favorable treatment in an ultimately failed financial scheme to develop a Greek island resort.
Appel is accused of paying Sharon and his son nearly $700,000 to promote the Greek tourism project and to help facilitate zoning for development outside Tel Aviv.
Under Israeli law, a person can be convicted of making a bribe without the alleged recipient being convicted, or even formally accused, of taking it.
According to Israeli media reports, prosecutors have decided not to press a case against one of Sharon's closest political allies, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert, now the trade minister, was the mayor of Jerusalem at the time of what Israeli media have dubbed the "Greek Island Affair."
Police questioned Sharon in connection with the matter this year.
The prime minister is also embroiled in a separate scandal involving alleged illegal loans from abroad for his campaign financing.
Also Saturday, a Palestinian boy reported to be either 6 or 7 was killed by a stray bullet as Israeli jeeps were driving through a refugee camp in the tense West Bank city of Nablus in search of a militant suspected of smuggling explosives.
The child, identified by family members and neighbors as Khalil Walwil, was inside his second-floor apartment at the time of the shooting.
Israeli media reports quoted the Israeli commander as saying his men came under fire but shot back only briefly because they had difficulty pinpointing its source.
Israeli media quoted the Israeli commander on the scene as saying he had no idea that there had been any injury until yelling erupted as his troops prepared to leave the area.
"I see an entire family shouting, and in the arms of the father I see a bleeding boy," Lt. Col. Guy Halout was quoted as saying.