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Pressure grows on Sharon to quit

Ariel Sharon speaks at the opening of the weekly Cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office March 14.  (Brian Hendler)

Ariel Sharon speaks at the opening of the weekly Cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office March 14. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, March 28 (JTA) — On the verge of a visit to Washington that Ariel Sharon hopes will clinch crucial U.S. support for his “disengagement plan,” the Israeli prime minister’s credibility at home is again being shaken. A long-running corruption scandal reared its head over the weekend with reports, later confirmed by the Justice Ministry, that State Attorney Edna Arbel had drafted an indictment against the prime minister. Now, all that stands between the 76-year-old former general and criminal charges is Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who authorizes such high-profile prosecutions. The Justice Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office declined comment. Sharon’s attorney accused Arbel aides of leaking the draft indictment in a politically motivated “media manipulation.” It could take Mazuz months to decide on a course of action. Sharon, while pledging to cooperate with the police investigation, has consistently denied wrongdoing in allegations that a property developer hired his son Gilad for a Greek island deal in the hope of obtaining government favors. But some members of Sharon’s own Cabinet, perhaps worn down by the regular press reports about the affair, were quick to demand that Sharon step down if indicted. “Under such circumstances, the prime minister should resign,” said Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky, whose Shinui Party has five of the government’s 23 portfolios. “I would expect him, even today, to pledge that he would go home and fight to prove his innocence from there,” Paritzky told Israel Radio on Sunday. Other Knesset members echoed Paritzky’s calls. A Sharon confidant dismissed the statements as an attempt to undermine the prime minister’s standing two weeks before he flies to Washington for a key meeting with President Bush, slated for April 14. “This is opposition to the disengagement plan masquerading as a desire for moral probity in government,” the confidant said. In what is being called the Greek Island affair, property developer David Appel is suspected of paying Gilad Sharon hundreds of thousands of dollars while his father was foreign minister. Investigators allege Ariel Sharon may have illicitly used his influence to help Appel’s business dealings. Israeli law does not explicitly require the prime minister to resign if indicted on criminal charges. But opinion polls indicate that a case indicating moral turpitude on the part of Sharon would provoke widespread demands for him to step down.

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