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Sharon probed in bribery case { January 22 2004 }

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Sharon Probed in Bribery Case
May face charges in alleged deal

By Conal Urquhart

January 22, 2004

Tel Aviv - Prosecutors charged an Israeli businessman yesterday with bribing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in exchange for official help with real estate investments. Justice Ministry officials said prosecutors are considering whether to indict Sharon, a step that would force him to relinquish power at least temporarily.

The officials said a decision would be made within weeks or months whether to indict Sharon or his deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Sources close to Sharon said he was carrying out his duties as normal, but the indictment has sharpened public debate over his future.

If indicted, Sharon would face heavy pressure to resign, political analysts said, and he might be required to by law. His removal would spark a battle within the Likud Party, which would have to choose a new leader to finish out Sharon's premiership.

The State Prosecutors' Office alleged that David Appel, a former Sharon associate, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for Sharon's help in lobbying Greek officials to get their backing for a resort Appel hoped to build in Greece.

Prosecutors say Appel got Sharon, then foreign minister, to promote the resort, in part by holding an event in honor of the Greek deputy foreign minister. It says Appel also hired Gilad Sharon as a marketing adviser in 1999 even though he had no experience in this role.

Appel allegedly agreed to pay Sharon more than $3 million. Although the resort project was eventually abandoned, $100,000 was paid to Gilad and $580,000 was paid to the Sharon family farm, the indictment said.

Prosecutors say Sharon, as prime minister, also tried to help Appel get some land in Israel rezoned to increase its value, in return for political and financial support. "Appel gave Sharon a bribe in recognition of activities connected to the fulfillment of his [Sharon's] public positions," the indictment said.

It says Appel also bribed Olmert. He has denied the charges.

If prosecutors are to indict Sharon, they must produce evidence that he was aware that money and assistance he and his family got from Appel were bribes. "It is not reasonable to believe that Sharon did not know," said Moshe Negbi, legal affairs analyst for Israel Radio.

Police separately are investigating Sharon and his sons, Gilad and Omri, over illegal funding of Sharon's campaign to become leader of the Likud Party in 2000. Sharon has said he had no knowledge of his campaign finances or his son's link to Appel.

Sharon's aides yesterday denied that he had any involvement in corruption and said there was no danger of his resigning.

But political commentators say Sharon's popularity has been eroded by the corruption investigations. According to polls by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth last summer, 64 percent of Israelis thought Sharon a credible prime minister; last week that figure had fallen to 41 percent.

"What we are seeing is daily erosion of his power," said Yaron Izrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "There will be gradual breaks and then ... a flight of supporters from Sharon to the likely contenders for the [Likud Party] leadership," he said.

Izrahi suggested Sharon may not last the year but that his tenure could strengthen if Palestinian violence worsens and further disrupts Israel's security.
Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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