TEL AVIV, Israel – An Israeli court charged a real-estate developer Wednesday with paying more than a half-million dollars in bribes to Ariel Sharon (search) -- a case that could force the prime minister to step aside.
While Sharon has not been charged, Justice Ministry officials say they are considering whether to indict the Israeli leader. The officials say the decision is expected in the coming weeks or months.
Sharon's spokesman Asaf Shariv would not comment on the case except to say: "I can guarantee there will not be an indictment."
David Appel was indicted in the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court for allegedly giving Sharon hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote a tourism project in Greece and also to help rezone urban land near Tel Aviv before and during Sharon's term as prime minister.
Appel's lawyer, Moshe Israel, denied the charges. "There is no doubt he is innocent," he said.
The indictment over the scandal -- widely known as the "Greek Island Affair" -- centers on allegations that Sharon's son Gilad received large sums in his father's behalf from Appel, an activist in Sharon's Likud Party who was trying to promote the project in Greece during 1999. Sharon was then foreign minister and allegedly was asked to use his influence to push forward both projects, although neither came to pass.
Specifically, the indictment said that during 1998-99 Appel "gave Ariel Sharon a bribe in recognition of activities connected to the fulfillment of his public positions."
The indictment said Gilad Sharon, while ostensibly a consultant in the Greek project, served as a middleman in accepting the bribes. "(Appel) and Gilad agreed to this arrangement despite the fact that the defendant knew that Gilad had no relevant professional qualifications," it said.
It said Appel sent a total of $690,000 to Sharon's family ranch in the Negev desert. Appel also promised to support Sharon in party primary elections, the indictment said.
The indictment against Appel threatens not only Sharon's political career but also complicates the daunting task of negotiating peace in the Middle East.
Sharon and Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qureia (search) say they support the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan to end 40 months of violence but remain deadlocked over details. In the meantime, Sharon has threatened to unilaterally redraw Israel's border with the Palestinians -- a move the Palestinians oppose as a land grab, but which could also mean a historic dismantling of some Jewish settlements deep in Palestinian areas.
The indictment prompted opposition politicians to urged Sharon's immediate resignation. But despite the fact that a leadership struggle in the ruling Likud Party already was brewing, his party was expected to stand fast behind Sharon -- at least for now.
"No one is ready now to call on him to resign. But they expect that...it will come in time," said Hanan Crystal, a veteran Israel Radio political analyst.
Sharon's office said the prime minister went about business as usual on Wednesday.
While there is precedent for Israeli politicians resigning because of a scandal, there also have been cases where leaders -- not indicted -- have held on to power despite suspicion and public criticism.
Sharon, a former general, is expected to put up a fierce battle to stay in power.
"He will fight until the last bullet," Crystal said. "But Richard Nixon was a fighter. You cannot fight against everything."
The indictment also charged Appel with giving a bribe to Vice Premier Ehud Olmert to promote the Greek project, when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem in the late 1990s.
Sharon is also being investigated for alleged involvement in illegal campaign financing.
If Sharon is charged, he would be forced to suspend himself from office while the case is pending. But the prime minister could also face pressure from the public and his own 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.
Opposition lawmaker Yossi Sarid said that if cornered, Sharon might use diversionary tactics, with dangerous implications.
"He could complicate the country in military or political adventures," Sarid said. "He could get us caught up in a little war."
But Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, a kingmaker in Sharon's ruling coalition, said it was too soon to rush to judgment.
"There is no justification for asking for the resignations of ministers regarding suspicions that have not been raised against them, but rather against another person, which have anyway not been proved in court," Lapid said.
Israeli media said Sharon's likely heirs were already maneuvering for position. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the current finance minister, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Olmert were mentioned as the leading contenders.