- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

JERUSALEM Israel's attorney general yesterday rejected a police recommendation to try former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, clearing the way for the popular hard-liner to challenge Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

In a 22-page statement distributed to news organizations, Elyakim Rubinstein cited "difficulties with the evidence" that made a conviction of Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, unlikely. Police suspected the couple of conspiring with a government contractor in a kickback scheme, illegally keeping gifts and obstructing justice.

"I have decided to close the file against Mr. Netanyahu concerning the suspicions attributed to him because of evidence insufficient for a criminal trial," Mr. Rubinstein said.

The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Mr. Barak, who soundly defeated Mr. Netanyahu in May 1999 elections. Mr. Barak's far-reaching peace proposals have lost him majority support in parliament, and Mr. Netanyahu's hard-line Likud Party hopes to force him out once parliament reconvenes Oct. 30.

Recent polls indicate that Mr. Barak would handily defeat Mr. Netanyahu's successor as party leader, Ariel Sharon, but the same polls show Mr. Barak and Mr. Netanyahu in a dead heat.

Mr. Netanyahu is slated to arrive in Israel today from the United States, and aides have strongly hinted that he will announce his return to the political fray before the Jewish new year, which starts tomorrow afternoon.

"I think that any person who can contribute and Benjamin Netanyahu can contribute a lot to the state of Israel needs to" lead the Likud, Mr. Netanyahu's former spokesman, Shai Bazak, told army radio.

Mr. Rubinstein's report hardly lets Mr. Netanyahu off the hook. He said that Mr. Netanyahu's relationship with a contractor who reportedly carried out more than $100,000 worth of services for them for free was improper.

"The considerations were difficult. There was a consensus by everyone who dealt with this that this was not a proper way to run government," said Mr. Rubinstein. "The image of the public service in the eyes of the public … is a vital condition for the existence of proper government."

The news of a possible Netanyahu comeback came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators intensified a bid to work out a final peace agreement while Mr. Barak is still in office.

Not everyone in the Likud was heartened by the prospect of Mr. Netanyahu's return. Israel radio reported that Mr. Sharon was considering helping Mr. Barak delay elections by joining the coalition in a national unity government.

Likud lawmaker Ruby Rivlin, who is close to Mr. Sharon, called on Mr. Netanyahu to make a quick announcement and "stop the flurry of whispers."

Mr. Netanyahu has been residing in the United States, working as an adviser to start-up companies and keeping largely out of the public eye.

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