Ariel Sharon said Thursday he will not resign as prime minister, despite corruption allegations and the possibility he could be indicted in the coming weeks.
A real estate developer was indicted Wednesday on charges of bribing Sharon with $690,000, and Justice Ministry officials said they would decide whether to indict the prime minister for accepting bribes. Such charges would only be filed if prosecutors are convinced Sharon had criminal intent.
Despite a flurry of criticism, Sharon said he would not step down.
“I am not about to resign. I emphasize, I am not about to resign. I am busy with work from morning to night, and I do not intend to make time for issues that are under investigation,” Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
At a meeting of backers of his ruling Likud Party Thursday afternoon, Sharon said: “I plan to keep serving as prime minister and as Likud chairman until 2007 at least,” according to the Yediot Web site.
Sharon said the burgeoning scandal would not deflect his attention from what he considers to be more pressing issues, including a hearing at the world court in The Hague, Netherlands, on the legality of a barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.
An Israeli court on Wednesday indicted real-estate developer David Appel for allegedly bribing Sharon. The indictment raises the chances Sharon will be indicted as well and further clouds hopes for a renewal of stalled peace efforts.
Poll: Half want Sharon out
A Dahaf Institute poll published in Yediot on Thursday found 49 percent of Israelis think Sharon should resign or suspend himself; 38 percent said he should stay premier. The poll of 504 people had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
The focus of the scandal is the so-called “Greek Island Affair,” in which Appel allegedly paid Sharon’s son Gilad money so Sharon, then foreign minister, would use his influence to help Appel promote a project in Greece in 1999.
Opposition politicians urged Sharon to resign, and a leadership struggle in Likud already was brewing.
Sharon’s spokesman, Asaf Shariv, said Sharon could not comment on the case because of the pending investigation. “I can guarantee there will not be an indictment,” he told The Associated Press.
There is precedent for Israeli politicians to resign as a result of scandal. But there have also been cases where, despite suspicion, no indictments were handed down, and leaders have held on despite criticism.
A former general, Sharon is considered likely to wage a fierce battle to maintain his leadership.
“He will fight until the last bullet,” Israel Radio political analyst Hanan Crystal said. “But Richard Nixon was a fighter. You cannot fight against everything.”
Investigation to take weeks
Justice Ministry officials said on condition of anonymity they expected to complete an investigation of Sharon within several months, possibly sooner, and decide on an indictment.
Appel was indicted in the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court for allegedly bribing Sharon to use his influence to push the Greek Island project and to help rezone urban land near Tel Aviv. Neither project came to fruition.
During 1998-99, the indictment said, Appel gave “Sharon a bribe in recognition of activities connected to the fulfillment of his public positions.”
It said Appel sent $690,000 to Sharon’s family ranch in the Negev desert. Appel also promised to support Sharon in Likud primaries, the indictment said.
The indictment also charged Appel with bribing Vice Premier Ehud Olmert to promote the Greek project when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem in the late 1990s.
The indictment said Gilad Sharon, while hired as a consultant in the Greek project, served as a middleman in accepting the bribes.
Appel’s lawyer, Moshe Israel, denied the charges. “There is no doubt he is innocent,” he said.
The indictment further complicated Sharon’s legal problems, which include a probe into his alleged involvement in illegal campaign financing.
If Sharon is charged, there would be legal precedent for him to suspend himself while the case is pending. But the prime minister could also face pressure from the public and his party to step down before that.
“For opponents in his party, this indictment is like a wind in their sails that will set in motion political and coalition opposition,” said Channel Two TV political commentator Amnon Abramowitz.
Several Israeli ministers have been forced out of office due to legal run-ins. Lengthy investigations against former prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, did not result in indictments.