- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel’s chief prosecutor has drafted an indictment against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a long-running corruption scandal that could drive him from office, Israel’s Channel 2 television said yesterday.

The report said State Attorney Edna Arbel plans to submit the charge sheet within days to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who will make the final decision on whether to put the 76-year-old leader on trial.

Channel 2 said it could take Mr. Mazuz months to decide whether to accept Mrs. Arbel’s recommendations, adding to a cloud of political uncertainty that has enveloped Mr. Sharon.

A spokesman for the Justice Ministry, which represents both the state attorney and the attorney general, declined to comment on the report. Mr. Sharon’s office also had no comment.

Mr. Sharon’s attorney, Avigdor Klagsbald, was quoted by Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper on its Web site as saying the chief prosecutor’s draft was a “media-manipulation attempt.”

“The state is conducting a system of unfair leaks against the prime minister in an attempt to put pressure on public opinion and the opinion of the attorney general, who is the sole authority to decide whether to submit an indictment,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Israel Radio quoted sources in the prime minister’s office as saying Mr. Sharon would only comment on the case when Mr. Mazuz finally decided about the indictment.

Mrs. Arbel’s draft concluded there were sufficient grounds to charge Mr. Sharon with bribery in connection with a real estate deal involving his son, Gilad, and land developer David Appel, a stalwart of the prime minister’s Likud Party, the report said.

The latest development catches Mr. Sharon during a stormy time while he tries to win support from the United States and from his own Cabinet for his plan to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank.

There was no immediate indication whether the reported draft indictment would delay Mr. Sharon’s planned trip to Washington on April 14 to meet with President Bush regarding his disengagement plan.

Palestinians fear an Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip would mask an attempt by Mr. Sharon to annex settlements in the West Bank, denying them the viable state they seek.

Prosecutors say Mr. Appel hired Gilad Sharon in 1999 and paid him large sums to persuade his father, then foreign minister, to promote real estate deals, including a Greek island resort that was never built.

Mr. Sharon has in the past denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Appel, who was charged in January with trying to bribe Mr. Sharon in the 1990s, also denies the charges against him. Mr. Appel’s indictment did not cite any evidence that Mr. Sharon knowingly accepted money to grant political favors.

Some Cabinet ministers from the centrist Shinui party, Mr. Sharon’s largest coalition partner, have called on the prime minister to suspend himself if the attorney general decides to indict him, Israeli media reported after the Channel 2 report.

Mr. Sharon has said he has no intention of resigning over the charges. In 1993, Israel’s high court ordered Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to resign from the Cabinet over corruption charges. He was sent to prison in 1999.

Legal experts are divided over whether, under law, Mr. Sharon would be forced to resign if indicted.

“Sharon must suspend himself — it is inconceivable for a prime minister to have an indictment against him,” said Menachem Klein, a political analyst at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

Mr. Sharon has faced a public backlash over the past months over charges of corruption and misconduct regarding multiple scandals. Israeli police are conducting investigations of the cases and Mr. Sharon denies involvement in all of them.

In one case, Mr. Sharon’s sons, Gilad and Omri, are charged with using a $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman as collateral to repay purported illicit contributions to Mr. Sharon’s campaign. Foreign funding of political campaigns is illegal in Israel.

The political uncertainty for Mr. Sharon also comes when Israel is on elevated alert for Palestinian revenge attacks after last week’s assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

In Beirut yesterday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah joined a new Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in mourning and offered the help of the Lebanese militant group in revenge operations.

“Consider us in Hezbollah, from the secretary-general and leadership down to our fighters and women, members of Hamas, and soldiers under your command,” Sheik Nasrallah said.

In the Balata refugee camp outside the West Bank town of Nablus, a 6-year-old boy was shot dead when a Palestinian gunman opened fire at an Israeli military jeep during a raid, the Israeli army said.

Television footage taken of the incident by foreign television networks showed a gunshot ricocheting off an armored Israeli jeep toward an upper floor of an adjacent building.

Palestinian residents said the dead boy, Khalil Walwil, was killed either when soldiers on a nearby hill opened fire at the building while he stood by a window or when troops shot at Palestinians throwing stones.

Israeli soldiers raided the camp to search for militants planning suicide bombings, but left empty-handed.

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