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Israeli Prime Minister Questioned Again in Bribery Case - 2004-02-05

Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the second time in three months, about allegations the Israeli leader accepted bribes from an influential businessman.

Police are looking specifically into how much, if anything, Mr. Sharon knew about large sums of money paid to his son Gilad by millionaire real estate developer David Appel.

The prime minister is being asked for details of a tape-recorded conversation he had with Mr. Appel in which the tycoon promised great wealth would come to Mr. Sharon's son, Gilad.

Wednesday, the businessman defended the Prime Minister on Israeli television. He said Mr. Sharon did not even know he had hired his son.

Mr. Appel was indicted last week for allegedly bribing members of the Sharon family. Mr. Appel is alleged to have paid Gilad Sharon nearly $700,000, when his father was foreign minister, in the late 1990s, as a consultant on a major tourism project in the Greek islands.

The final decision on whether to bring charges against Mr. Sharon rests with Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. He is expected to announce whether an indictment will be sought in a few weeks.

State Prosecutor Edna Arbel has said she believes the prime minister should be charged. If that happens, Mr. Sharon could be required to step down as prime minister, pending the outcome of a trial.

Critics charged that Mr. Sharon's surprise announcement this week that Israel would remove all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip was meant to deflect attention from his current legal troubles.

Ten members of parliament from Mr. Sharon's Likud Party have signed a letter pledging to oppose the removal of the settlements. Others said the issue should be put before the country in a referendum. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said the prime minister would welcome a referendum because he believes the proposal has overwhelming public support.