Call to Indict Sharon Ignites Political Storm

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 29-Mar-04 | Author: James Bennet| Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM, March 28 — Israel's state prosecutor cast a shadow over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday when, the Israeli news media reported, she recommended that the attorney general indict him on charges of taking bribes from a developer.

Officials close to Mr. Sharon said they had long expected such a recommendation, while adding that they also expected the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, to impose a far higher standard of proof before proceeding with an indictment.

Politically, if not legally, an indictment would almost surely compel Mr. Sharon to step down, Israeli politicians said.

The Justice Ministry confirmed that the prosecutor, Edna Arbel, had made a recommendation, but declined to discuss its substance. Mr. Sharon has not been charged with a crime.

Mr. Mazuz is likely to take at least a month and probably longer to decide whether to proceed, the Justice Ministry said. If he concludes that an indictment is warranted, Mr. Sharon will have the opportunity to request a hearing before a final decision on whether to indict.

The news leak of the prosecutor's recommendation outraged Mr. Sharon's office. It ignited a political storm around him just as he was seeking American agreement to his announced plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers unilaterally from most or all of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

"The timing is devastating," said a top adviser to Mr. Sharon. "It's terrible, because it's so irresponsible."

He argued that Ms. Arbel's view that an indictment was warranted had been known for months. She has a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor of suspected public corruption, and legal experts said her recommendations for indictment were not always accepted.

"There is absolutely nothing new in this so-called news," the Sharon adviser said. "The whole thing is a media event." Mr. Sharon is planning to meet with President Bush in Washington in mid-April.

Legal experts also objected to the disclosure of the recommendation to the Israeli news media, saying it generated improper pressure on Mr. Mazuz. "It's really unheard of," said Uriel Reichman, a professor of law who is president of the Interdisciplinary Center, a nonprofit academic institution in Herzliya. "It creates a difficulty for the attorney general to exercise his discretion, and creates a prejudgment in public opinion."

He said the leak risked politicizing the atmosphere around the attorney general's decision, putting Mr. Mazuz in the position of looking like "an obedient follower of Arbel, or somebody who is for the prime minister."

Legal experts are divided over whether an indictment would immediately force Mr. Sharon to resign. But with his far-right partners in the governing coalition already furious over his withdrawal plan, he would be unlikely to sustain his government in the face of an indictment, politicians said.

Members of one crucial coalition faction, the centrist, good-government Shinui Party, have said they would no longer support Mr. Sharon as prime minister if he was charged.

Joseph Paritzky, the minister of infrastructure and a Shinui member, speaking on Israel's Channel Two television, called on Mr. Mazuz to "fix a date, as close a date as possible, for a decision one way or the other, to close the issue," adding, "We have already declared that if the prime minister is indicted, we shall demand his resignation."

Mr. Sharon must also contend with restive members of his own party, Likud. Uzi Landau, a Likud minister who opposes the withdrawal plan, said Sunday that Mr. Sharon must at least suspend himself if charges are filed against him.

Adding the left-of-center Labor Party to his coalition would be Mr. Sharon's clear recourse to remain in power if the pro-settler parties eventually bolted because of his withdrawal plan. But Labor would be unlikely to join in the event of an indictment, Labor politicians said.

Indeed, Mr. Sharon came under immediate pressure on Sunday from opposition politicians over Ms. Arbel's recommendation. "The most important thing is that in the reality we are in, the prime minister cannot continue to function," Haim Ramon, a Labor leader, told Israeli radio. "He is in great distress. We are all in great distress."

Mr. Sharon and his son, Gilad, are under investigation in what is known as the Greek Island Affair, a series of land deals that raised suspicions of influence-buying.

In January, an Israeli court indicted a politically connected Israeli developer, David Appel, on charges of trying to bribe Mr. Sharon with about $700,000, most of it paid to Gilad Sharon. The court said that beginning in the late 1990's, when Mr. Sharon was foreign minister in a previous government, Mr. Appel sought his influence in deals that included a resort and casino on a Greek island.

The indictment of Mr. Appel said he had told Mr. Sharon that his son would make a lot of money, but it did not disclose Mr. Sharon's response. It did not lay out evidence that Mr. Sharon had knowingly taken a bribe.

For proposed payments of $3 million, Mr. Appel hired Gilad Sharon to promote the development of the Greek island resort, though, as the indictment put it, he "did not have the relevant professional skills."

After hiring Gilad, Mr. Appel made monthly payments to an account of the Sharon ranch, which is in Gilad's name, the indictment said.

Prosecutors have also been examining at least one land deal by Mr. Appel in Israel. They have also been weighing a possible indictment of Gilad Sharon.

Some Israeli politicians and legal experts said Mr. Mazuz, who was appointed in January, would find it difficult to reject Ms. Arbel's recommendation.

"He is in a way an unknown quantity," said Moshe Negbi, a commentator who teaches public and constitutional law at Hebrew University. "But it's hard for him to go against the recommendation, because he is, on the one hand, new on the job, and on the other, he is not an expert, and he does not have much experience in criminal law." He said Mr. Mazuz was more experienced in administrative and constitutional law.

But others said Mr. Mazuz must find a balance between competing public interests in maintaining governmental stability at a difficult time, protecting the integrity of the prosecutor's office and policing possible abuse of power.

If Mr. Mazuz indicted Mr. Sharon and failed to convict him, they said, he would jeopardize the standing of his own office while throwing the government into turmoil.

"He has to review the evidence and decide on the basis of the evidence presented him whether he as a judge would convict the prime minister," Professor Reichman said. "Anything less than this standard is, in my view, very problematic."