updated 6/15/2004 10:43:50 AM ET 2004-06-15T14:43:50

Israel’s attorney general on Tuesday dropped a corruption case against Ariel Sharon, ending months of uncertainty over the prime minister’s political future and boosting prospects of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz told a news conference that he is not indicting Sharon on bribe-taking charges because of lack of evidence. Mazuz informed Sharon of the decision by phone before the news conference.

The decision clears the way for Sharon to court the opposition Labor Party, which has said it would only consider joining the government if the prime minister is cleared of corruption allegations.

Sharon needs Labor to restore the parliamentary majority he lost as a result of the dismissal or defection of Cabinet hard-liners opposed to a Gaza withdrawal. Sharon wants to remove Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza by the end of 2005.

At the center of the corruption case are suspicions that Israeli businessman David Appel paid Sharon’s son Gilad hundreds of thousands of dollars to help push through a lucrative real estate deal in Greece, at a time when Sharon was foreign minister in 1999. In the end, the project did not go through.

Appel has been indicted for allegedly paying bribes but under Israeli law, prosecutors must prove that the recipient of a bribe was aware of the improper payments. Sharon has denied wrongdoing.

No solid evidence
Mazuz said there was no solid evidence against Sharon. “The evidence in this case does not bring us anywhere close to a reasonable chance of conviction,” he told the news conference.

Even with the end of the investigation, Sharon’s legal problems may not be over. Israeli prosecutors are also probing Sharon and his sons for allegedly receiving an illegal $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman. Sharon has denied any wrongdoing in the case.

The leftist opposition party Yahad said it plans to appeal Mazuz’ decision to the Supreme Court. “A decision by Mazuz not to bring (Sharon) to trial cannot be the end of this,” Yahad legislator Ran Cohen told Israel Radio. “It has to go to the court system to be examined at the highest level, by the Supreme Court, and only its decision will put an end to this affair.”

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