- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israel’s state attorney formally accused an Israeli businessman yesterday of bribing Ariel Sharon, intensifying a corruption scandal that threatens to bring down the prime minister.

The indictment marks the first time an Israeli prime minister has been named formally in a bribery case and prompted opposition members of parliament to call for Mr. Sharon’s resignation.

Mr. Sharon told reporters he has no intentions of resigning, but Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said the prime minister would be forced to step aside if the state attorney issues an indictment against him.

A 27-page list of charges submitted to the Tel Aviv Magistrates court yesterday said real estate developer David Appel gained Mr. Sharon’s intervention in an ambitious Greek island tourist project when he served as foreign minister four years ago.

In return, the document says, Mr. Appel agreed to help Mr. Sharon in a Likud Party primary election and to employ his son, Gilad, providing a salary package worth more than $3 million.

Mr. Appel’s attorney said the charges were baseless, especially since no indictment had been issued against Mr. Sharon or his son.

A decision on whether to indict either Mr. Sharon for accepting a bribe will not be made for a matter of weeks while police gather more evidence, a Justice Ministry official said.

Channel 2 television reported that State Attorney Edna Arbel plans to recommend an indictment as soon as the second week of February. The final decision will fall on the shoulders of a yet-to-be named attorney general.

Police are conducting a simultaneous investigation 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. The inquiry also could end up in an indictment.

“What we have now is something official. This is a very major threat,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “The circumstantial evidence against his family puts [the prime minister] in a problematic position.”

If Mr. Sharon is forced out of office, his Likud Party will continue to govern, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert among the leading contenders to head it. None of the potential successors commented on the scandal yesterday.

The indictment charges that Mr. Appel, a powerful Likud activist, agreed to organize a campaign staff for Mr. Sharon ahead of elections determining the ranking of candidates within the party’s slate for parliament.

Mr. Appel hoped that Mr. Sharon could use his influence as foreign minister to persuade Greek officials to alter zoning regulations that blocked plans for the development of a Mediterranean resort on an island southwest of Athens.

Gilad Sharon was hired onto the project by Mr. Appel, who promised Mr. Sharon that his son would earn a lot of money, according to the charges. The indictment also charges that Mr. Appel sought Mr. Sharon’s help to influence a zoning change on real estate outside Tel Aviv.

The publication of the charges sent shock waves through Israel’s political system, with one Likud member of parliament, Ayoob Kara, saying Mr. Sharon had injured the party’s ability to govern.

A party spokesman said the charges will hurt Mr. Sharon’s public image but will have few long-term implications as long as the prime minister is not indicted.

Mr. Sharon has been criticized for his and Gilad Sharon’s refusal to comment on the earlier fund-raising affair. Shimon Peres, chairman of the opposition Labor Party, called on the prime minister yesterday to end his silence.

“Israel is in a difficult hour, and the situation requires the prime minister to make his version of the events public,” said Mr. Peres, a longtime friend of Mr. Sharon’s. “I am neither an investigator nor a judge, but the fog has to be cleared for the people and the country.”

Israeli has a precedent of a prime minister resigning because of an ethics scandal. Yitzhak Rabin stepped down in 1977 after his wife, Leah Rabin, was discovered to have set up illegal foreign bank accounts.

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