- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon has earned a reputation as Israel’s Teflon prime minister, weathering the Palestinian uprising and an economic recession to emerge with an unprecedented election victory.

But as police investigations into a land deal and campaign finances engulf Mr. Sharon’s son, Gilad, analysts say it’s far from clear that the prime minister will remain unscathed.

And with Mr. Sharon and another son, Omri, facing police questioning over their political fund raising, some have suggested Mr. Sharon’s tenure could unravel.

The campaign-finance inquiry was leaked to the press six months ago, weeks before parliamentary elections returned Mr. Sharon to power.

At the time, the prime minister was able neutralize its effect with a press conference in which he scolded the media for even daring to drag the investigation into the election campaign.

Mr. Sharon continues to enjoy high approval ratings for his handling of the Palestinian uprising, with some comparing him to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who dominated politics for the first two decades of Israel’s existence.

But with Gilad Sharon refusing to talk to police, charges of a scandal are eroding Mr. Sharon’s aura of invincibility.

“It’s definitely a problem,” said Hebrew University professor Avraham Diskin. “The situation now is very threatening to Sharon, more than any political thing that could have endangered his position as prime minister.”

The campaign-finance inquiry goes back to the 1999 Likud primary that vaulted Mr. Sharon to the leadership of the party.

After some of the donations to the campaign were disqualified by election authorities, Gilad Sharon reportedly received a $1.5 million loan from South African businessman Cyril Keren.

Omri Sharon, who has functioned as Mr. Sharon’s closest political aide, also could be drawn into the scandal.

In the land-deal investigation, nicknamed the “Greek island affair,” Gilad Sharon is suspected of accepting payments from David Appel, a businessman and political insider who sought help from Mr. Sharon and other Likud politicians in building an island resort in the Mediterranean Sea.

When called in for questioning by police last month over the Keren loan, Gilad Sharon invoked his right to silence for fear of implicating his father. This month, he maneuvered to avoid a court order to hand over documents connected to the case.

Gilad Sharon’s reluctance to talk to police investigators has reflected on his father. There’s been criticism from Mr. Sharon’s coalition partners about his son’s behavior.

National Infrastructure Minister Yossi Paritzky sent a letter to Mr. Sharon urging him to be more forthcoming on the investigations. Mr. Paritzky is a member of the Shinui Party, which has pledged to rid the government of corruption.

The prime minister’s indifference toward the case contrasts with his decision to demote Likud parliament member Naomi Blumenthal from deputy minister for refusing to cooperate with investigations into charges of vote-buying during elections for the Likud parliamentary slate last year.

Critics of Mr. Sharon say there is a double standard when it comes to his sons.

Mr. Sharon is fortunate, however, that the opposition Labor Party is divided over whether to rub salt in the wounds of the leader.

The public sees him as the only politician capable of leading Israel through the crisis of the uprising, say analysts.

“It’s something like a parallel to the case with [Bill] Clinton: As president, he did well, but on the personal level, it’s different,” said Israeli pollster Hanoch Smith. “I haven’t seen anything happen to his popularity as prime minister of the country.”

But advisers close to Mr. Sharon began expressing concern about the investigation shortly after the election, Mr. Diskin said.

“However you look at it, [Mr. Sharon] is on the edge of crossing the line,” he said. “It should be terrifying for him.”

Haunting Mr. Sharon is probably the public’s memory of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1977 stepped down after revelations that his wife, Leah, had used an illegal U.S. bank account.

Twenty years later, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein spared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a fraud indictment over the appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general after the police recommended that the state press charges.

Now the fate of another prime minister appears to be in the hands of Mr. Rubinstein, who is about to finish his term and move onto the Supreme Court.

“I would say there’s a better than 50 percent chance that there’s going to be an indictment against Sharon,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor at Bar-Ilan University.

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