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Decision in Israeli Bribery Case Expected This Week - 2004-06-14

Israel's attorney general is expected to formally announce his decision later this week, but media reports indicate he is likely to not seek an indictment against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on charges of bribery stemming from a failed real estate project. The decision would be a political boost to Mr. Sharon's otherwise flagging political fortunes.

The official decision has yet to be announced, but Israeli media say Attorney-General Menachim Mazuz is likely to close the bribery case against Mr. Sharon for lack of sufficient evidence.

The threat of indictment has been hanging over Mr. Sharon since January, when real estate tycoon David Appel was indicted for trying to bribe the prime minister in what has become known as the Greek island affair.

The case goes back to the late 1990s and involves hundreds of thousands of dollars that Mr. Appel allegedly paid to Mr. Sharon's son, Gilad, to help promote a tourist project on a Greek island. Mr. Sharon was foreign minister at the time.

Mr. Appel has proclaimed his innocence, and Mr. Sharon also has denied repeatedly that he was involved in any wrong-doing.

State Prosecutor Edna Arbel recommended months ago that Mr. Sharon be formally charged, and the attorney general's office has been looking into the case.

Were Mr. Sharon to be indicted, he would likely be forced to resign. But, a decision by Attorney-General Mazuz to drop the bribery charges would give the prime minister a badly needed political boost. The bribery scandal has been hanging over Mr. Sharon's head amid growing dissension within his own party and defections due to his controversial disengagement plan.

Mr. Sharon wants to pull all Israeli settlements out of the Gaza Strip along with four small ones from the West Bank. While opinion polls show that the vast majority of the Israeli public supports the idea, hardliners within Mr. Sharon's Likud party and within his government coalition reject it.

Mr. Sharon recently dismissed two coalition ministers just to get the plan approved in principle within his cabinet. Another coalition minister quit in protest but these actions need not be a political death knell as long as the opposition Labor party provides a safety net of sorts to prevent votes of no confidence in parliament from toppling the Sharon government.

Labor, which strongly supports the disengagement plan, has suggested it might be willing to join the coalition, but not as long as the bribery charges are pending.

Even if the Greek Island affair is closed this week, Mr. Sharon still faces a second corruption scandal, which involves both of his sons, Gilad and Omri, and a $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman. The loan was allegedly used to cover illegal contributions to Mr. Sharon's 1999 election campaign. That case is still under investigation.