TEL AVIV, Jan. 21 (JTA) — Ariel Sharon’s two sons, Gilad and Omri, have been an inseparable feature of his political career, serving as counselors and secret emissaries for the Israeli prime minister. Now those family ties could cost Sharon his job. After a year of leaks and speculation, the Justice Ministry on Wednesday charged David Appel, a property developer and Likud Party stalwart, with bribing Gilad Sharon to help secure a deal to buy a Greek island to develop a tourist resort. The alleged payoff and its timing — payments in the late 1990s that may have been as much as $3 million — led prosecutors to wonder whether Ariel Sharon, then foreign minister, helped Appel with the island deal to repay the alleged largesse to Sharon’s son, or whether even Sharon himself benefited from the money in his 1999 race for the Likud Party leadership. Sharon and Appel have denied any wrongdoing in the case. Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid emphasized that the charges filed Wednesday against Appel do not implicate Sharon or Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert — also named as an alleged bribery target — in any wrongdoing. But Israel’s Channel Two television quoted State Attorney Edna Arbel as saying that Sharon and his son could be charged within two weeks for taking bribes. In any case, Israel’s political opposition smells blood. “This is an earthquake,” Labor Party secretary-general Ofir Pines-Paz told reporters. “Sharon should have resigned long ago, and must do so now.” Labor said it might seek a no-confidence vote in the governing coalition. But sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said Sharon was going about his duties as usual. “Arik will never quit,” a Sharon confidant told JTA, using Sharon’s nickname. “They have been seeking his head for decades, and he always came out on top. Those who want him out in his second term will see him go on into a third term.” Israel’s next elections are scheduled for 2007. A 75-year-old former war hero, Sharon has enjoyed broad popularity for his handling of the Palestinian intifada, now more than three years old. But Sharon’s popularity has suffered from allegations of financial corruption connected to his family and party. Recent polls show that most Israelis would want Sharon to step down if misconduct is proven. Wednesday’s charge, filed in Tel Aviv District Court, is the latest in a series of scandals surrounding the prime minister. Omri and Gilad Sharon also are suspected of taking an illicit $1.5 million loan from a South African friend to use as collateral against contributions made to their father’s campaign chest in the 1999 Likud Party primaries. Additionally, while Sharon was infrastructure minister in the 1990s, Appel is accused of seeking his help to get cut-rate development rights to government-controlled lands in central Israel. Omri and Gilad Sharon have refused to cooperate with investigators, claiming their right to avoid self-incrimination. Twinned with the prime minister’s failure to publicly respond to the charges, some in Israel believe there are too many black sheep behind the high fences of the Sharon family ranch in southern Israel. Critics of the prime minister, noting that the judicial process can take months or years, expressed concern that the scandal could taint Israel’s position in the international community and hamper its efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. “I urge the prime minister to come out and give his version,” Labor leader Shimon Peres told Channel One television. “This is not a legal matter; it is a matter of statesmanship.” If Sharon and Olmert are indicted, early elections probably would be called and a succession frenzy likely would ensue in the Likud. Leading candidates to replace Sharon would be Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Sharon mired in scandal