Sharon bribery scrum heats up

With corruption scandals swirling around him, Ariel Sharon, Israel's self-styled warrior-politician, is facing a daunting battle for political survival, analysts say.

Mr. Sharon is on the hot seat after an indictment was issued Wednesday against a property developer for allegedly trying to bribe him.

The indictment presented in the Tel Aviv district court says in part that the developer, David Appel, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sharon's son Gilad in an attempt to bribe Sharon to advance his business deals.

Mr. Appel's lawyer, Moshe Yisrael, denied the charges, saying "There was nobody who gave anything, nor anyone who received anything."

The charges against Appel threaten Sharon on two levels, the analysts say. First, the case could lead to a separate indictment of the prime minister, which would lead to enormous pressure to resign.

Second, even if Sharon is not charged, the wear and tear of an embarrassing Appel trial could galvanize Likud party rivals to demand his resignation.

"I think Sharon is in very serious trouble but we have to remember that he is a fighter," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report. "People have written him off before and he has bounced back."

As foreign minister in 1999, Sharon was expected to use his contacts with the Greek government to promote a deal in which Appel would develop tourism on a Greek island. According to the indictment, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert was also an object of Appel's attempted bribery.

Sharon's son, Gilad, was hired by Appel as an adviser and was paid large sums of money despite having no skills related to planning the island tourism project, the indictment adds. The indictment specifies that Appel informed Sharon that his son would make a very large amount of money from the deal.

Sharon seemed likely to survive the immediate fallout.

"He was elected by an unprecedented majority and his fate will not be decided by a media lynching," said Gideon Saar, a Likud member of Knesset (MK). "I believe in his integrity and he will survive these difficult days."

The Justice Minister, Yosef Lapid, said the charges against Appel were not by themselves cause for resignation and that charges of attempted bribery do not necessarily imply the guilt of the party named as the intended recipient.

But Lapid added that if Sharon were indicted he would have to "draw conclusions."

That is a time-honored Israeli euphemism for resignation. It was the same phrase that finally forced Mr. Sharon to resign in 1983 when a state commission found that as defense minister, he bore "personal responsibility" for the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla Refugee Camp by Lebanese Christian militiamen.

Sharon fought the resignation demands till the bitter end, and also battled to defend his reputation in a lawsuit against Time magazine.

Written off as a political pariah in the immediate aftermath of his resignation, he staged a painstaking comeback until gaining top office in 2000 and reelection in 2003 with his antiterrorism credentials. Last year, he also successfully weathered efforts to indict him in a Belgian court for war crimes, arguing they were based on anti-Semitism.

Analysts predict that if the Appel trial increasingly besmirches him, Sharon will again fight off resignation calls. "If it is up to him, he definitely will not resign," says Ha'aretz columnist Hannah Kim. "The question is what will happen in Likud. Will they begin to see his continuing on as a liability for elections?"

By late Wednesday, only one Likud MK, Ayoub Kara, had openly turned against Sharon, joining a clamor of left-wingers demanding that he step down, or at least begin to consider resigning. The person to watch, however, is probably Sharon's main party rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to closely gauge how the trial develops. "Netanyahu does not want to be seen as undermining Sharon, he would go for the throat only when he knows [the attack] won't backfire against him," says Ms. Susser.

Yossi Sarid, from the left-wing Meretz party, Wednesday called on Sharon to "suspend himself" on the grounds that a Sharon under pressure would try to divert public attention away from the scandal. "He is liable to engage in military and diplomatic adventures and even involve us in a small war," said Mr. Sarid, one of Sharon's sharpest critics during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Recent public opinion surveys provide scant comfort to the prime minister A survey published in Yediot Ahronot on Friday showed that his approval rating had dropped to 53 percent from 68 percent in August.

In another embarassing case, Gilad and another son Omri are currently under police investigation in connection with illegal funding of Ariel Sharon's 1999 Likud primary election campaign.

Sharon has denied wrongdoing in the matter, but has come under fire from the media for possibly misleading Israel's state comptroller about the affair.

"Sharon's strategy will be to say that the Appel trial concerns only Appel and has nothing to do with him," Kim says. "But if he continues to drop in the polls the pressure on him within Likud can only increase."

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