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Hawks Circle Israeli PM as Scandals Widen

JERUSALEM — Israeli politicians have begun gearing up for a battle of succession as Prime Minister Sharon struggles against a mounting wave of legal investigations and charges of corruption that could potentially drown his political career, perhaps in the coming months.

During the last two weeks, hardly a day has gone by without another serious blow to Sharon’s image and standing. The prime minister is described by ministers, officials and close observers as increasingly preoccupied and short-tempered, as befits a man who, so goes the growing speculation among insiders, has begun to fear that the end is nigh.

The attorney general and the state comptroller, considered the government’s guardians of public propriety, this week formally and scathingly declared that Sharon had acted “gravely” by disregarding a clear-cut conflict of interest between his official capacities and his personal interests in a real estate case. But that was the least of Sharon’s problems. Two separate criminal investigations, involving illegal campaign financing and possible bribe-taking, are rapidly converging on Sharon’s two sons, Gilad and Omri, and from there, according to authoritative police sources, on to the prime minister himself. Even if he emerges without a formal indictment, political analysts now say Sharon’s tenure might soon buckle under the accumulated weight of the various investigations and charges against him.

Likud politicians seen as leading candidates to replace Sharon, should he be forced to resign, have begun discreetly but frantically cultivating the party’s regulars, trying to position themselves for a possible fight for the throne in the very near future. Former prime minister and current Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though hurt by his unpopular economic austerity program, is still considered to be the frontrunner, especially if no new elections are called. Without new elections, a new prime minister must be drawn from the current Knesset, ruling out the popular Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. The main challenger to Netanyahu would then be Deputy Prime Minister and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert, assuming he is not indicted himself.

Small wonder that Sharon’s stinging humor appears to have left him. His advisers and ministers now tread softly in his presence. Aides even warned Bush administration officials, in advance of Sharon’s meetings in Washington last week, that the prime minister’s mind might be on matters other than the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations.

Adding to Sharon’s woes, the fragile but still holding Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire has shifted public attention away from vital security matters, allowing the evolving police investigations and the spreading media insinuations against Sharon to resonate doubly loud.

Sharon’s public problems began to heat up in mid-July after his son Gilad, citing his right to remain silent, declined to cooperate with police investigators probing the $1.5 million loan Sharon received from South African millionaire Cyril Kern. Gilad Sharon received the loan from Kern in 2001 to repay illegal campaign contributions for his father’s party leadership bid in 1999, contributions the senior Sharon had testified were repaid by mortgaging his farm.

Sharon was publicly raked over the coals for failing to comment on his son’s silence, which contrasted sharply with his peremptory election-eve sacking of a junior Likud politician, Naomi Blumental, for invoking her right to silence in an unrelated but similar matter.

Sharon was further embarrassed days later when the police went to court to force Gilad to hand over documents pertaining to the case. The police claimed Sharon’s younger son was seeking to foil a police search by hiding behind the official immunity of his father’s famous Negev home, the Sycamore Ranch.

As the scandal has mounted, it has taken on international proportions. Sharon now faces accusations that he was engaged in a sinister conspiracy to obstruct justice when he agreed this month to return Israel’s ambassador to Vienna. The Austrians, according to numerous media accounts, supposedly repaid the diplomatic gesture by turning down a request from Israeli police to investigate Kern’s alleged connections — and perhaps secret financiers — in Vienna.

Police have pointedly fed the press almost daily leaks indicating that Sharon’s elder son Omri will soon be called in for questioning, and following him, the prime minister himself.

Nor is that all. Sharon has become increasingly implicated in a second police investigation, dubbed “The Greek Island Affair,” in which his son Gilad also plays a central role. The Justice Ministry announced that it was in the final stages of preparing a formal indictment against David Appel, a high-flying Tel Aviv businessman with widespread Likud connections, on charges of offering bribes to smooth his plans to construct a resort on an island in the Aegean. This investigation may leave Sharon legally unscathed, since Israeli law permits a situation in which only the bribe-giver, and not the bribe-taker, is formally charged. Nonetheless the list of potentially unindicted co-conspirators in the case is widely known. One is Gilad Sharon, who was paid $20,000 a month and stood to make as much as $3 million in exchange for what his contract with Appel described as “expert advice.” Another is Sharon ally and then-Jerusalem mayor Olmert, who allegedly hosted the mayor of Athens for a formal dinner in exchange for political and financial favors as part of Appel’s campaign to woo the Greeks. Still another is the senior Sharon himself, then foreign minister, who was asked to exert his influence with Greek officials on Appel’s behalf.

Sources close to both investigations claim that even if the police and the state prosecutors ultimately decide they do not have enough hard evidence to convict either Sharon or his sons in a court of law, the accumulated evidence and testimony will badly damage Sharon in the court of public opinion. Included are secret police wiretaps in which Sharon is clearly portrayed, by others if not by himself, as a politician willing to peddle his influence.

Sharon’s image has already been tarnished by the public’s perception that after using his sons as front men, he was now hiding behind their backs. Sharon’s claims that he was “unaware” of his sons’ multimillion-dollar wheeling and dealing on his behalf are almost universally dismissed as less than credible. His willingness to see his sons dragged into police interrogation rooms, without volunteering to spare them by speaking up himself, is eliciting widespread derision.

At times, Sharon and his sons have aggravated their own dire predicament. By claiming that he was remaining silent for fear of “implicating his father,” Gilad Sharon gave police investigators added incentive to go all the way. The senior Sharon also hurt himself by his responses in a third, unrelated case involving alleged conflict of interest in a local zoning dispute. The prime minister’s intervention with the zoning authorities in the case, in which he and his sons stood to benefit personally and directly, was condemned as conflict of interest by the state comptroller. Sharon declined to respond to the charge until after the comptroller’s report was issued, which infuriated the much-respected comptroller, former Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg. After the attorney general announced this week that the conflict charges were not indictable, Goldberg responded with a harshly worded condemnation of Sharon.

Although Sharon’s diplomatic and defense policies continue to enjoy broad popularity, his numbers in the polls are steadily eroding. Part of the drop is due to the country’s economic woes, but part is due to the growing image of corruption. The press, usually quick to jump on scandals, has only recently and reluctantly begun to focus on the charges against the popular Sharon. In the past three weeks, however, the media has succumbed to the accelerating pace of police investigations and given growing prominence to the negative headlines about the prime minister’s behavior.

The danger facing Sharon, apart from direct indictment, is that his freshly burnished “father of the nation” image, painstakingly built up since his election in February 2001, will yield to his old reputation as an unscrupulous politician who stops at nothing to get what he wants. Growing public anger at what is routinely described in the press as rampant corruption at the top may soon reach a critical mass that could ultimately push Sharon out of office in the coming months.

Sharon’s advisers insist that he will emerge unscathed in the end. They also predict that developments with the Palestinians — either negative or positive, but probably negative — will soon shift public attention away from Sharon’s legal problems. His would-be successors, they scoff, are grooming themselves prematurely for a contest that won’t take place until Sharon’s current term ends in November 2007 — and perhaps not even then.

But even the most loyal optimists admit that the once-infallible Sharon is bleeding, and that the worst is yet to come. Pressed, they cling to historical precedent and cite Sharon’s military past, when he usually managed to snatch a daring victory from the jaws of all-but-certain defeat. Their unstated prayer is that Sharon will go into the breech once more, and survive.

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