JERUSALEM – Israel's state attorney formally recommended Sunday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) be indicted for bribe-taking, an official close to the investigation said.
The state attorney does not have the last say on the matter; the final decision is up to the attorney general who is expected to rule within a month.
However, Sunday's reported recommendation would carry considerable weight and was seen as a major step toward a possible resignation by Sharon.
The Justice Ministry confirmed that State Attorney Edna Arbel (search) made a recommendation in the Sharon case Sunday, but would not say what it was.
An official close to Sharon said Arbel's position in favor of an indictment was known for some time, and that her decision did not come as a surprise.
Arbel drafted an indictment against Sharon on Sunday and forwarded it to Attorney General Meni Mazuz (search), according to an official close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Legal analysts said Arbel's recommendation carries great weight, but that there is no legal reason for Sharon to step aside now. If an indictment is handed down, the prime minister would be under intense pressure to resign, they said.
Some analysts said that while under a cloud of indictment, Sharon could try to speed up his plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The proposed pullback is widely supported by the Israeli public.
"In the end, the attorney general won't be able to ignore the state attorney's opinion," Ofir Pines-Paz, a leading lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party, told Israel Army Radio. "The prime minister has to suspend himself until the attorney general's final decision is made."
Yossi Beilin, a leader of the dovish opposition party Yahad, also urged Sharon to step down.
Sharon has been plagued by a slew of corruption scandals since taking office in 2001.
The focus of this investigation is the so-called "Greek Island Affair."
Israeli businessman David Appel was indicted in January for allegedly bribing Sharon with US$690,000 to promote a tourism project in Greece and to help rezone urban land in Tel Aviv, before and after Sharon was elected prime minister.
In 1999, when Appel was promoting his tourism project in Greece, Sharon was foreign minister. Sharon's son, Gilad, was allegedly paid large sums of money so his father would use his influence to push the project forward. The project failed, as did the one near Tel Aviv.
Cabinet minister Uzi Landau called for a thorough investigation and prosecution of whoever leaked Arbel's recommendation to the media.
"I think we all have to wonder whether there was not an attempt to pressure the attorney general," Landau, a hawkish member of Sharon's Likud Party, told Israel Radio.
Legal analyst Moshe Negbi said Mazuz would only adopt Arbel's opinion "if he is also convinced...that there is a good chance of convicting the prime minister." Mazuz took office in January.
His predecessor, Eliyakim Rubinsein, decided against indicting several Israeli leaders — including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Ezer Weizman — despite the state attorney's recommendation they be charged.