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Israel: Sharon Says Says He Won't Quit Over Bribe Scandal

by Harvey MorrisFinancial Times
January 21st, 2004

Ariel Sharon attempted on Thursday to quell speculation that might be forced out of office by a corruption scandal after a businessman was charged with bribing him, telling an Israeli newspaper that he had no intention of resigning.

"I am not about to resign. I stress - I am not about to resign," Mr Sharon was quoted as saying by Yedioth Aharonoth. "If the question is whether recent developments are liable to bring about my resignation, the answer is no."

Speculation had mounted on Wednesday that the Israeli prime minister might be forced out of office by a corruption scandal after a businessman was charged with bribing him to promote property deals.

A series of corruption allegations have been hanging over Mr Sharon since before his re-election a year ago. In the course of police investigations he has denied any wrongdoing.

State prosecutors on Wednesday charged David Appel, a property dealer and friend of the Sharon family, with transferring $580,000 to the prime minister's Negev ranch to secure his help with business deals.

Also named in the indictment against Mr Appel were Mr Sharon's son Gilad and Ehud Olmert, deputy prime minister.

The opposition Labour party seized on the allegations to call for Mr Sharon's resignation and to prepare for a possible no-confidence vote in the Knesset.

Mr Sharon's coalition commands a strong majority in parliament. However, as the corruption allegations have escalated, rivals in his ruling Likud party have been staking out their own policy platforms in anticipation of a leadership struggle.

Potential successors include Benjamin Netanyahu, finance minister, Silvan Shalom, foreign minister, and - at least until publication of yesterday's indictment - Mr Olmert.

Yosef Lapid, justice minister and head of the coalition's Shinui party, cautioned that the naming of the two politicians in the indictment did not necessarily prove any wrongdoing.

Israeli Radio said prosecutors would decide within weeks whether to indict Mr Sharon, who would almost certainly be obliged to leave office if charged.

A justice ministry official said prosecutors would have to await the results of a continuing investigation before making a decision. Officials close to Mr Sharon expressed confidence that the inquiry would clear him of knowingly accepting bribes.

The bribery allegations date back to 1999, when Mr Sharon was foreign minister and Mr Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem. One section of the indictment against Mr Appel, who denies the charges, alleges that he bribed the two politicians to help him with a project to build a resort on a Greek island. Their alleged role was to lobby Greek officials on the businessman's behalf.

Mr Appel, an influential figure in Likud, is also alleged to have offered Gilad Sharon an inflated salary and a $3m bonus to act as consultant in the Greek island affair. The project did not proceed.

In a separate investigation, Mr Sharon was questioned by police for seven hours in October about a $1.5m loan from Cyril Kern, a South African businessman, used to repay illegal campaign contributions.

The repayment allowed Mr Sharon to avoid legal action after the state comptroller found a group linked to him had raised illegal foreign funding and misappropriated Likud funds to promote his 1999 campaign for party leadership and his 2001 campaign for the premiership.





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