- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israel’s attorney general yesterday exonerated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his son, Gilad, from influence-peddling charges, removing an obstacle to Mr. Sharon’s plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

The move by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz — which had been predicted by local media — cleared the way for talks with the opposition Labor Party on a unity government. Labor backs the Gaza withdrawal.

Israel’s former state prosecutor had recommended pressing formal charges against Mr. Sharon for purportedly accepting bribes in the late 1990s from real estate developer David Appel to advance a Greek island tourism project.

But Mr. Mazuz cast his decision to close the case in unambiguous terms, calling the charges “circumstantial and vague.” Mr. Appel was indicted earlier this year for trying to bribe Mr. Sharon.

Thousands of wire-tapped phone calls “didn’t provide the decisive evidence, direct or indirect, for a foundation to the allegations that Sharon was bribed by Appel,” Mr. Mazuz said. “The absence of such evidence is a thunderous silence.”

Even though the decision is likely to be appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said immediately after the announcement that he considered the case closed.

“The report speaks for itself,” said an official in the prime minister’s office.

Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres congratulated Mr. Sharon after the decision, and hinted that he is interested in discussing forming a national unity government with Mr. Sharon.

“The Labor Party has only one consideration: what will hasten the Gaza evacuation,” he said. “If the government falls, the opportunity to evacuate Gaza also falls.”

An indictment issued in January charged Mr. Appel, a powerful Likud Party activist, with seeking Mr. Sharon’s influence as foreign minister to persuade Greek officials to alter zoning regulations, which blocked plans for the development of a Mediterranean resort.

The indictment also asserted that Mr. Appel promised Mr. Sharon that the deal would be lucrative for his son, Gilad, who was hired for the project.

The specter of the indictment gave Mr. Sharon’s rivals an opportunity to decry his Gaza withdrawal policy as a cynical tactic aimed at drumming up public support that would insulate him from pressure to resign in the event of an indictment.

Unlike in the United States, where the president appoints the attorney general as a Cabinet member, Israeli attorney generals are nominated by an independent committee and then confirmed by the Israeli Cabinet. Mr. Mazuz was named to the position in January.

Although Mr. Sharon dodged a bullet yesterday, his legal woes are not over. A police investigation is being conducted into $1.5 million in loans received by Gilad Sharon from a South African businessman in 1999 to help finance Mr. Sharon’s primary election campaign.

Though that inquiry could also end up in an indictment, a decision could be more than a year off, giving Mr. Sharon plenty of time to move forward on the Gaza disengagement.

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