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Prominent Israeli Businessman Indicted on Bribery Charges - 2004-01-21

An Israeli court handed down an indictment of a prominent businessman on Wednesday, charging him with bribing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Israeli real estate developer David Appel was indicted on charges of paying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote a real estate project in Greece and Israel. The indictment says bribes were paid in 1999 when Mr. Sharon was foreign minister and again both before and after the Israeli leader became prime minister.

It charges that David Appel gave Ariel Sharon a bribe in recognition of activities connected to the fulfillment of his public positions. It also says that Mr. Appel paid a total of $690,000 to the Sharon family ranch in the Negev desert.

The indictment also charges that Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was paid bribes in the late 1990's to help promote the Greek real estate project. Mr. Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem at the time. It also charged that Mr. Sharon's son Gilad served as a middleman to funnel money to his father.

David Appel's lawyer denied the charges against his client, saying, There is no doubt he is innocent.

There has been no reaction from the prime minister's office, but Mr. Sharon, his son and Mr. Olmert have previously denied all wrongdoing. and none of the three has been charged with a crime.

But the Appel indictment has led opposition lawmakers to urge Mr. Sharon to resign. Former Finance Minister Avrahom Shohat of the Labor Party called for his resignation accusing him of, in his words, polluting the atmosphere of Israeli politics. Another Labor Party figure, Ophir Pines-Paz, called the affair a political earthquake" that elsewhere would have forced the prime minister to resign long ago.

Army radio quoted an unnamed source in the prime minister's office as saying there is no chance Mr. Sharon will resign his post, nor is there a chance that charges will be filed against him.

The indictment handed down Wednesday is only the latest in a series of legal difficulties facing the Israeli prime minister. An investigation is currently underway into allegations that Mr. Sharon received an illegal loan of $1.5 million to finance his primary campaign for leadership of the Likud Party.

The scope of the allegations surrounding the prime minister is so broad and the anger within his own party so great, many analysts are saying the pressure could bring Mr. Sharon down.

The Hebrew daily Yediot Ahranot reported in its Wednesday edition that a movement is gathering steam within the Likud Party to replace Mr. Sharon as leader.