- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

The indictment announced earlier this week against Israeli businessman David Appel on charges of bribing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his son, Gilad, and deputy premier Ehud Olmert could have serious implications for the political future of Mr. Sharon — leader of the staunchest U.S. ally in the Middle East and the region’s one indisputable military superpower.

Mr. Sharon has become one of the most dominant political leaders Israel has seen in modern times. The 75-year-old Israeli leader said on Thursday that he will not resign and said he may run again for prime minister in 2007. Yet, the Appel indictment — taken together with reports in the Israeli press that Acting Attorney General Edna Arbel would recommend that Mr. Sharon be indicted on charges of accepting bribes in the next two weeks — has thrown Israeli politics (and internal Likud Party politics, in particular) into a state of chaos.

According to an indictment issued Wednesday, beginning in November 1999, when Mr. Sharon was leader of the Likud opposition in the Knesset, Mr. Appel paid approximately $700,000 to Gilad Sharon in an effort to persuade his father to support a Greek island real estate project. The indictment alleges that the businessman “gave Ariel Sharon a bribe in recognition of activities connected to the fulfillment of his public position,” that he paid “exorbitant funds” to Gilad Sharon in an attempt to get his father to support the project and that payments continued until June 2001 — three months after Ariel Sharon became prime minister. The indictment also alleges that Mr. Appel attempted to bribe Mr. Olmert, then-mayor of Jerusalem, to win his support for the project. A decision on this indictment is also expected in the next few weeks. Neither man would be forced to resign if he is indicted.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Mr. Sharon may avoid indictment and that his government and the Likud Party will whether the storm. But if he is indicted, and his political situation deteriorates, it is possible that the second-largest party in the Israeli leader’s coalition — a “clean government”-oriented party called Shinui, which holds 15 seats in the Knesset — could leave the government, causing it to collapse.

Even if Mr. Sharon were indicted and resigned from office, Israel would not have to hold new elections. Instead, the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, would assign responsibility for forming a new government to another Knesset member. The most likely candidate would be a member of Mr. Sharon’s ruling Likud coalition, which holds 68 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Right now, Benjamin Netanyahu, current finance minister and former prime minister, is the clear frontrunner.

The ouster of Mr. Sharon would be an unfortunate development from the perspective of American policy. By embracing President Bush’s road map for Mideast peace, Mr. Sharon has demonstrated his determination to go the extra mile to work with Washington and reach peace with the Palestinians. But the resolution of this matter is the exclusive province of Israeli law and politics. The administration must strive to ensure the continuity of U.S. policy regardless of who is prime minister of Israel.

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