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Corruption charge against sharon dropped { June 15 2004 }

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June 15, 2004
Israeli Corruption Case Against Sharon Is Dropped

Israel's attorney general dropped a bribery case against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today, removing the threat that Mr. Sharon would be forced to resign and leaving the way open for him to pursue his plan for a Gaza Strip pullout.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said in announcing his decision that there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the prime minister, as the chief prosecutor had recommended.

Mr. Mazuz informed Mr. Sharon of his decision by telephone, and the prime minister said "Thank you," according to Israel's Channel 10.

"The evidence in this case does not bring us anywhere close to a reasonable chance of conviction," Mr. Mazuz said at a news conference in Jerusalem.

Mr. Sharon, 76, got his plan to withdraw from Gaza through his cabinet last week in a 14 to 7 vote, but two key rightist ministers quit, leaving him with a shaky coalition and a Likud Party that rejected the plan in an earlier, non-binding referendum. He also lost his parliamentary majority over the issue.

Many analysts now expect Mr. Sharon to turn to the opposition center-left Labor Party to help rebuild his coalition and pass the withdrawal plan, which Labor supports.

But Labor had said it would not consider joining the coalition unless Mr. Sharon was cleared in what has become known in Israel as the "Greek Island Affair," and the Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, says his support is not automatic.

"We're not in anyone's pocket," Mr. Peres told Army Radio today.

Another opposition party, Yahad, said it intends to appeal today's decision to Israel's Supreme Court.

"It has to go to the court system to be examined at the highest level, by the Supreme Court, and only its decision will put an end to this affair," a Yahad legislator, Ran Cohen, told Israel Radio today.

Mr. Sharon's plan entails evacuating 7,500 settlers from Gaza occupied along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war in four phases by late 2005, each requiring further votes.

Palestinians say they back the withdrawal but would have preferred it to have been subject to negotiation, not simply an Israeli decision.

Investigators had been trying to determine whether Mr. Sharon was being bribed when a wealthy developer, David Appel, made payments of about $700,000, beginning in 1999, that went mostly to Mr. Sharon's son Gilad, according to court documents.

The deal was arranged when Mr. Sharon was foreign minister in a previous government, and Mr. Appel was trying to develop a resort and casino on a Greek island. Mr. Appel hired Gilad Sharon to promote the project and proposed payments of up to $3 million, though Gilad Sharon had little business experience.

The resort was never built.

The indictment against Mr. Appel said Mr. Sharon had been told his son would make a lot of money, but it did not lay out evidence that Mr. Sharon had knowingly taken a bribe.

Another investigation against Mr. Sharon is still underway, this one into into a loan from a South African businessman to cover the refund of illegal campaign contributions in Mr. Sharon's election race in 1999.

The Israeli news media had been reporting for weeks that Mr. Mazuz was unlikely to press charges against Mr. Sharon today after an inquiry that lasted for months.

On April 28 Israel's Channel 2 television station, citing an unidentified Justice Ministry official, said that a team assembled by the attorney general had found insufficient evidence to indict the prime minister.

Channel 2 repeated that report last month, and a similar report was made by Channel 10.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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