Bribery charge dogs Sharon

Israel's chief prosecutor recommends that the prime minister be indicted in real estate influence-buying deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has tried to keep people focused on his big picture: shrinking the threat of terror attacks by assassinating Palestinian leaders while increasing Israel's security by promising a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and building a massive barrier through the West Bank.

But Mr. Sharon keeps getting dragged back into what he dismisses as the little picture: a series of bribery allegations that now threaten to bring him down.

Israel's chief prosecutor is recommending that Sharon be indicted on corruption charges and has prepared an indictment against him, according to a series of leaks to Israeli media this weekend. It is now up to Israel's attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, to decide in the coming weeks whether the Israeli leader will be brought up on bribery charges.

But Sharon's career has regularly been marked by periods of great controversy, all of which he has managed to survive. In nearly 50 years of being a force to be reckoned with in Israeli military and political life, few can point to a moment when the man nicknamed "The Bulldozer" backed down. And now, despite suggestions from within his own coalition that he will have to step down from office if he is indicted, few expect Sharon to leave the premier's seat unless forced to go.

"From a legal point of view, he has the full authority to remain in office, and he has the characteristic of being a man who ignores all criticism," says Moshe Negbi, a prominent Israeli legal analyst. But if Sharon is formally indicted, legal precedent suggests he would have to step down.

"There is clear-cut evidence from the Supreme Court, which ruled 11 years ago that a person cannot serve in a major national capacity if he is under indictment," says Mr. Negbi. This ruling has been applied to a cabinet minister, but never to a prime minister.

Adversity and 'adventurism'

Sharon's deepening troubles leave in doubt his ambitious agenda - from defending the decision last week to kill Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to a mid-April White House visit aimed at persuading the Bush administration of the merits of Sharon's disengagement plan. "Everything he does from now on will be seen as something he has done because of his legal trouble. This will make him a lame duck, and that's the real trouble," says Mr. Negbi. "There are claims already on the far right that the whole disengagement plan is over his legal problems."

If other politicians have been said to be made of teflon, Sharon seems suited with full body armor. He gained a reputation for "adventurism" as a young commander showing a brazen reluctance to follow orders that made him a hero in the eyes of some - and a danger in the eyes of others. Domestically, he was one of the architects of the drive to settle the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Israeli- Arab war.

It was during the war in Lebanon that Sharon became a household name. Sharon, then defense minister, was accused of having allowed Christian Phalangist militiamen to enter the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut and massacre between 700 and 2,000 civilians in 1982. Afterwards, an Israeli investigation found Sharon responsible for "disregarding the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed," and chastised him "for not taking appropriate measures to prevent or limit this danger." Sharon resigned as defense minister but remained as minister without portfolio.

Given his resilience, many observers say Sharon will not be brought down easily. "This prime minister is something unique in the history of Israel, because he's not really sensitive to such charges," says DanielBen Simon, a journalist who has covered Israeli politics for the Haaretz newspaper for 20 years. "For much less, prime ministers and public figures have resigned and suspended themselves. Sharon has a different code of ethics."

The prime minister's office says it will not comment on the investigation.

Israel's chief prosecutor, Edna Arbel, concluded that there are sufficient grounds to charge Sharon with bribery in connection with real estate deals involving his son Gilad and a developer named David Appel. The investigation, according to Israeli media reports, alleges that Appel paid Gilad Sharon $690,000 in 1999 to convince his father, then foreign minister, to promote real estate deals, including the construction of a resort on a Greek Island. All those involved deny the allegations. Arbel's findings, arguing for Sharon's indictment, do not mention any evidence that Sharon knowingly accepted money to grant political favors, Reuters reported.

Portrayed as a victim of the left

There are other investigations still under way. One case alleges that Sharon's sons Gilad and Omri took a $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman to repay alleged illegal contributions to Sharon's election campaign.

If their prime minister is indicted, some might expect Israelis' support for Sharon to plummet. But the conventional wisdom may not hold true, argues Mr. Ben Simon, because Sharon is already being portrayed as a victim of a left-wing campaign against him.

"The more he becomes a victim of the judicial system, he will be seen a victim of the left and the judicial establishment," Ben Simon says. "They will blame the press, the establishment, the left, the Israel-haters - because when such things happen, they will act as victims rather than perpetrators."

For Attorney General Mazuz to override the recommendation to indict Sharon, he would have to show why the evidence against him and his sons is insufficient. Similarly, if he does move to indict, he opens the page on a turbulent chapter in Israeli politics.

"Mazuz knows that submitting an indictment against Sharon will cause a political, social, and economic earthquake in Israel and lead to early elections," Tova Tzimuki wrote in Sunday's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "Therefore, he will adopt Arbel's recommendation only if he is certain beyond any doubt - not only reasonable doubt - that the anticipated turmoil will not be in vain and that the evidence Arbel has given him will indeed lead to the conviction of the prime minister."

There is no deadline for Mazuz to make up his mind - and it might be a month or more before he makes his decision. But until then, political analysts say that Sharon's ability to move forward on any of his major policies will probably be handicapped.

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