TEL AVIV — Just two weeks before the commencement of what could be the decisive political step in his career — pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza — Ariel Sharon suffered one of his career’s most serious political and personal blows: the indictment of his son, Omri, on campaign finance violations.
The indictment, announced Tuesday by Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, is not expected to derail the Gaza disengagement, which is to begin August 15 and end six weeks later. It could, however, cast a long shadow over Sharon’s hopes of remaining in office much beyond the pullout. The younger Sharon, a Knesset member and close confidante of his father, is charged with serious violations allegedly committed while he was running his father’s 1999 campaign for the Likud party leadership. If the case goes to trial — as Omri Sharon has vowed it will — what comes out could very well end not only his career, but also his father’s.
The indictment, which followed long and fruitless plea negotiations, was timed with precision. Mazuz waited until the moment a new law took effect, approved by the Knesset just two days earlier, easing the process of removing lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity. Omri Sharon not only voted for the new law, but also promptly asked that his own immunity be lifted. In a letter to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, the younger Sharon frankly admitted violating the campaign finance laws in effect at the time, but said the laws were “absurd and out of touch with reality.” That seemed to indicate Omri’s likely line of defense, should there be a trial.
Justice Ministry sources indicated that although the plea negotiations had broken down, they could resume soon — this time with a different ending.
The charges in the indictment relate to the elder Sharon’s race during the summer of 1999 to take over Likud after the downfall of Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been defeated as prime minister that May by Ehud Barak. The legal spending limit for such party-leadership campaigns was set at just under $200,000; according to the indictment — and to Omri Sharon’s public acceptance of the facts — the younger Sharon used several “straw companies” to raise and spend nearly $1.5 million, violating several laws in the process. Charges include lying under oath and falsifying records of a corporation, the penalty for which could be several years in prison.
The actual punishment was the main issue of disagreement preventing a plea agreement between Mazuz and Omri’s lawyer, Dan Sheinman. Omri wanted the prosecution to ask for no more than six months’ imprisonment, the maximum term that may be replaced by public service under Israeli law, thus keeping Omri out of prison. Mazuz insisted on a longer period, which would require Omri to serve real time.
The larger public drama involves other aspects of the case. One article of the indictment claims that Omri, in falsifying the financial records of the campaign, “made Ariel Sharon sign wrongful documents.” Mazuz previously had decided not to charge the elder Sharon in the case — as he had decided in his first famous Sharon ruling, in the separate and equally explosive “Greek Island” affair. Anybody who knows anything about the Sharon family — and most Israelis know a great deal — finds it hard to believe that Omri would have hidden such facts from his famously detail-oriented father. Many, in fact, agree with Knesset member Michael Ratzon, one of the so-called Likud rebels battling Sharon’s disengagement plan, who said this week: “I wish Omri Sharon luck. He seems to have unending loyalty for his father.” What Ratzon meant — and what countless Israelis were saying bluntly in water-cooler conversations this week — is that Omri took the fall so his father could remain prime minister.
This was the main factor driving Mazuz to take a hard line on the plea deal: not the wish to see Omri Sharon fall, but the widespread public feeling that a bargain would prevent a trial, allowing Ariel Sharon to escape without the real questions of his involvement ever coming up in court. The attorney general had come under heavy criticism at the time of his June 2004 Greek Island decision — involving alleged influence peddling in a real-estate deal by Sharon’s other son, Gilad — from critics who said Mazuz was soft on the prime minister. He could ill afford another case in which he would be viewed as letting the prime minister off the hook.
Ariel Sharon received the news of his son’s indictment while en route to France for an official visit, one apparently aimed less at any actual diplomatic needs than at presenting him as calm, unruffled and in command on the eve of his big move. His response on hearing the news, according to aides, was — well, calm, unruffled and in command.
The indictment of Omri Sharon appears unlikely to affect the prime minister’s ability to see the Gaza disengagement through. The evacuation of Gaza, along with four settlements in the northern West Bank, seems to be a foregone conclusion. Israel’s army and police this week began final training exercises for the tens of thousands of troops about to carry out the mission.
What could be at stake in the current legal drama is the next stage of the diplomatic process. Most observers consider it highly probable that Sharon will be forced to face elections right after the completion of the withdrawal, perhaps even before the end of the year. Omri’s trial, should there be one, will provide the prime minister’s opponents — especially his once and future rival, Finance Minister Netanyahu, who reaffirmed his intention to run this week — with plenty of ammunition.