Sharon Showdown?

The old warrior Ariel Sharon faces a tough battle -- one he might not win.

Fri Jan. 23, 2004 3:00 AM EST

Ariel Sharon's hold on his job looks shaky after the indictment on Wednesday of David Appel, a wealthy businessman and leading Likud power broker, for allegedly paying bribes to Mr Sharon and his youngest son, Gilad. It's the first time in Israeli history that an indictment has included a charge of bribing a serving prime minister.

The indictment claims that Appel, a land developer, offered to pay Gilad Sharon $3 million for his help in marketing a planned casino on the Greek isle of Patroklos. Sharon senior, then serving as the foreign minister, was allegedly supposed to obtain planning permission from the Greek government in return.

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On Thursday Sharon announced that he would not be beaten by the scandal. "I came here as prime minister and the chairman of the Likud party ... a position I intend to fill for many years, at least until 2007," Sharon told a meeting of his party's youth movement. Unfortunately for the prime minister, the choice is not likely to be his to make. Both Israel's attorney general and the commander of the police criminal investigations told Ha'aretz that the evidence against the prime minister is very strong, and that the police intend to interrogate Sharon in the coming days.

Ze'ev Segal writes that as a matter of law the prime minister cannot be prevented from serving unless he has been served with an indictment. In the coming weeks or months prosecutors will decide whether to indict Sharon.

Sharon's Likud party has for the most part been tight-lipped, neither condemning nor defending Sharon, but a number of opposition members have called for him to come clean. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres told the press that public deserves the truth.

"This is not an easy moment for me…I have been a friend of Arik's [Sharon] for more than 50 years, and I don't deny this. Although we are political opponents, we are not personal rivals. Israel is in a difficult time and the situation requires the prime minister to give the people his version."

However, one unnamed Likud minister told Ha'aretz that Sharon's reign is over.

"If I were him…I would resign. Today. And spare myself the headlines and the embarrassment and the distress. Enough. He realized his dream. He served three years as prime minister. The same as Netanyahu, more than Barak. He should go now!"

The Israeli public is still mulling the issue, although the prime minister's overall support has waned. A recent survey found that 64 percent of Israelis think that if Sharon was involved in criminal affairs then he would have to resign. Sixty-eight percent said they didn't believe Sharon's claim that he wasn't involved. Sharon's reputation, even among his supporters, is on the slide following his controversial plan to disengage from the Palestinians. Fifty-six percent of Likud voters, and 77 percent of the members of Shinui, a vital coalition member polled for the survey, say they have lost faith in Sharon's leadership.

Even if Sharon is not indicted, Yossi Verter, a political commentator, argues that the PM is in a serious situation. On Thursday the Israeli stock market took a dive on news of the indictment and rivals, Benjamin Netanyahu foremost among them, are vying to replace him.

What the Palestinians have failed to do, a sleazy financial scandal may yet accomplish. Sharon has a serious fight on his hands, and there's no guarantee he'll win it.

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