Sharon scandal: Pundits predict bribery allegation may be Israel leaders undoing

jerusalem | As with President Nixon in the Watergate affair, tapes and an attempted cover-up could be the undoing of Israel’s scandal-haunted leader.

After audiotapes and videotapes that aired on prime-time television last week suggested Ariel Sharon knew more than he has admitted about illegal fund-raising during his 1999 bid for Likud Party leader, pundits and politicians say the prime minister won’t see out the year in office.

Sharon says he isn’t worried and has no intention of resigning. But the race for succession is gathering pace in the Likud, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, well in the lead.

The tapes released by David Spector, a political consultant who worked for Sharon, show Sharon’s close advisers unabashedly contemplating illegal campaign funding.

In one tape, Uri Shani, then the Likud’s director general, tells Sharon’s son Omri that he could transfer Likud funds to the campaign coffers in a way that would be untraceable.

In a taped telephone conversation with Spector, Ariel Sharon asks about U.S. and European donations to what is believed to be an election fund, suggesting that he followed the wider illegal donation process in great detail.

Even if the tapes don’t prove criminal wrongdoing by the man who is now prime minister, they do imply a readiness to bend the rules, pundits say. They also suggest Sharon lied to the state comptroller in April 2001, when he said he had no idea how campaign funds were raised.

Things are liable to get worse for Sharon soon. The state prosecution on Wednesday filed bribery charges against David Appel, a wealthy building contractor and Likud activist with close ties to Sharon.

One of the charges relates to a Greek island that Appel wanted to buy in the late 1990s for tourist development. He allegedly paid Sharon’s son Gilad hundreds of thousands of dollars for his “advice” on the project, with a promise of $3 million more if the deal went through — money that police suspect was meant to encourage Sharon senior, then the foreign minister, to help advance the project.

If Appel stands trial for giving bribes, the issue of prosecuting those who took them will arise.

On Wednesday, Jan. 21, Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid emphasized that the charges against Appel do not implicate Sharon in any wrongdoing — but Justice Ministry officials said a decision would be made in coming weeks about whether to charge the prime minister as well.

The accretion of evidence, the growing suspicion of an attempted cover-up and the fact that the prime minister isn’t saying anything to the Israeli public on the issue are all undermining Sharon’s stature. Even if there aren’t criminal proceedings against him in the end, several seasoned observers predict that he will have to go soon.

“Ariel Sharon will leave office this year,” Dan Margalit wrote in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv. “Not because he will be tried, but because the Sharons went too far. In the Likud they are already talking about his resignation. Knesset members are getting ready to abandon his sinking ship, and this time it’s easy because his resignation will not entail new elections.”

Polls suggest Margalit may be right: Sharon’s credibility and popularity seem to be ebbing. According to a mid-January poll in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, 67 percent of Israelis believe Sharon knew about illegal campaign fund-raising; only 17 percent accept his claim that he didn’t.

All the speculation could prove premature, however. Gidon Samet of Ha’aretz noted that many wrote off Sharon when the scandal broke a year ago, yet he remains very much in control. Israelis are confused, Samet argued: They may not trust Sharon personally, but they cling to him as the strongman to see them through difficult times.

“Arik,” he wrote, using Sharon’s nickname, “will remain at the head of a perplexed society whose compass has failed it and whose contradictions he represents. He will stay on to the end, the bitter end.’

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.