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Bribery Case May Put Gaza Pullout on Hold

The state prosecutor's recommendation that Sharon be indicted could bring Israel a prolonged period of political uncertainty.

March 29, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The recommendation by Israel's state prosecutor that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon be indicted in a bribery case could usher in a prolonged period of political uncertainty and throw into question whether the Israeli leader will be able to move ahead with an initiative to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The prosecutor, Edna Arbel, formally submitted her nonbinding opinion Sunday, a day after it was widely reported in the Israeli media that she would call for Sharon's indictment over financial dealings with an Israeli land developer during the late 1990s.

It may be weeks or even months before Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz, with whom the final decision rests, chooses whether to put Sharon on trial. Mazuz, a veteran civil servant who was appointed to his post in January, has a reputation for being independent-minded, and has indicated that political factors will not play a part in his legal deliberations.

Already, Sharon is facing calls to voluntarily recuse himself from his duties pending Mazuz's decision.

"The prime minister ought to suspend himself until the attorney general's final decision is made," lawmaker Ophir Pines-Paz of the opposition Labor Party told army radio.

Israeli law is ambiguous as to whether a leader must step down if indicted. In the wake of the prosecutor's recommendation, the emerging consensus in Israeli political circles was that it would be impossible for Sharon to continue to serve as prime minister if an indictment followed.

"The moment there is an indictment, the prime minister must resign," said Cabinet member Joseph Paritzky of the Shinui Party. "The prime minister will be doing a good deed if he declares right now, 'If I am indicted, I will step down, and fight to prove my innocence.' "

Shinui, which is led by Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, said it would quit the governing coalition if Sharon was indicted but refused to resign.

Earlier this year, after being questioned by police in connection with the case, Sharon voiced determination to serve out his full term in office. On Sunday, however, he and senior aides were publicly silent.

The prime minister presided as usual over the weekly Cabinet meeting, after which his government released a bland communique addressing such matters as the appointment of the new Israeli ambassador to Kazakhstan and President Moshe Katsav's upcoming state visit to Hungary.

Much still stands between Sharon and an indictment -- let alone a conviction.

Financial scandals are a near-constant theme in Israeli politics, and similar calls by the state prosecutor to act against other top politicians, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were rejected by the previous attorney general, Elyakim Rubenstein.

Judicial officials and legal scholars say Mazuz is highly unlikely to indict the prime minister unless he believes that the case against Sharon -- involving a complex web of financial dealings by land developer David Appel and Sharon's son Gilad over a period of many months -- is certain to stand up in court.

The case, dubbed the "Greek island affair" by the Israeli news media, involves Appel's unsuccessful attempt to develop an Aegean resort. Appel, an influential activist in Sharon's Likud Party, has already been charged with paying about $700,000 in bribes to try to win backing for the project. Sharon was Israel's foreign minister when Appel allegedly made questionable payments to Gilad Sharon.

Both Sharon and his son have denied wrongdoing.

Under Israeli law, Appel could be convicted of bribery without anyone being convicted of accepting payments.

At 76, Sharon is an acknowledged master in the art of political survival, repeatedly demonstrating extraordinary resilience in the face of disgrace and defeat.

In the early 1980s, when he was forced to step down as defense minister after an inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in two camps outside Beirut, many Israelis thought he would never again hold any high public office.

But he gradually made his way back into power, holding a series of lower-level but increasingly important posts before being elected prime minister in February 2001.

Sharon's mounting legal woes come as he is trying to win the Bush administration's approval for his plan to uproot most or all of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip -- a move that could be coupled with a push to lay permanent claim to several large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank.

The U.S. has been putting heavy pressure on Sharon to meet with his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Ahmed Korei, and begin implementing the American-backed peace plan known as the "road map." The Israeli prime minister is to meet with Bush next month, and a trio of senior U.S. envoys is due in Israel this week.

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