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April 02, 2004 - Image 17

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-04-02

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Analysis

Foul Weather

Under legal cloud, can Sharon build support for disengagement?

LESLIE SUSSER

T

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Jerusalem

he state prosecutor's recom-
mendation to indict Ariel
Sharon on bribery charges
came just as the Israeli prime
minister was putting the finishing touch-
es on his plan for Israeli withdrawal from
the Gaza Strip and parts of the West
Bank.
If Attorney General Menachem Mazuz
decides to press charges, it could mean
the end not only of Sharon's political
career, but of the policy he hoped would
alter radically the contours of the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict.
If indicted, Sharon almost certainly
would suspend himself or resign, and his
successor would be free to drop the plan
to disengage from the Palestinians. In the
meantime, until Mazuz makes up his
mind — which could take up to two
months — Sharon will find it difficult to
garner American and domestic backing
for his far-reaching plan while under sus-
picion of criminal wrongdoing.
Though it carries enormous weight,
the prosecution's recommendation is not
binding, and it is far from certain that
Mazuz will accept it. Justice Ministry
insiders say Mazuz has described the case
against Sharon as "problematic" and
"borderline."
Sharon confidants say they are con-
vinced that, when it comes to the crunch
— with tenuous evidence able to deter-
mine a prime minister's political future
— Mazuz will not indict.
Sharon is suspected of receiving hun-
dreds of thousands of dollars through his
son Gilad from Likud activist and mil-
lionaire contractor David Appel for help-
ing to promote Appel's real estate inter-
ests in Greece and the central Israeli city
of Lod.
Appel already has been charged with
giving a bribe. Now, Mazuz must decide
whether Sharon was aware that he was
receiving one and whether there is
enough evidence to make a charge stick
against the prime minister.
In the meantime, Sharon is a prime
minister under a cloud and something of
a lame duck.
Before the indictment recommenda-
tion, Sharon was working hard to move
his disengagement plan forward. He was

Ariel Sharon was pensive at his March 28 Cabinet meeting.

close to tying up a deal with the Bush
administration for American support; he
had just made bold moves against
Hamas to facilitate Palestinian Authority
control of Gaza after an Israeli withdraw-
al; and he was hoping to use those two
factors to win support in his own Likud
Party, where right-wingers, including
some prominent Cabinet ministers, have
been highly critical of the plan.
Sharon also was covering his coalition
bases. He was close to cutting a deal
with the opposition Labor Party for its
19 Knesset members to join the coalition
if the 13 legislators from the right-wing
National Union bloc and National
Religious Party bolted over the disen-
gagement plan.
Now, it will be hard for Sharon to tie
up all the loose ends. He might not even
be able to get Cabinet approval for the
plan: Eleven of 23 Cabinet ministers
expressed their opposition before the
indictment recommendation, and others
may now come out against the weak-
ened prime minister and tip the balance
against him.
Labor will stay out of the coalition as
long as Sharon remains under a cloud,

and Labor leaders like Avraham Burg,
who oppose any alliance with Sharon,
will have a stronger case.
In addition, when Sharon flies to
Washington for a key April 14 meeting
with President Bush, U.S. officials are
less likely to make formal commitments
to a man who could be out of office
within weeks.
The fiercest challenge to Sharon,
though, will come from the right.
Leaders of the National Union, the
National Religious Party and the Yesha
settlers' council are hoping to utilize
Sharon's plight to scuttle the disengage-
ment idea. They hope that if the prime
minister is replaced, his successor will
shelve a plan that entails the dismantling
of nearly all the Jewish settlements in the
Gaza Strip and at least six in the West
Bank.
If Sharon is forced to resign, Likud
insiders say he probably would be suc-
ceeded by Finance Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, who has shown little enthu-
siasm for the disengagement plan.
By Israeli law, the resignation of a
prime minister does not necessarily trig-
ger a general election. Sixty-one Knesset

members can propose an alternative can-
didate, and the president can confer on
him the task of forming a new govern-
ment.
Though Industry and Trade Minister
Ehud Olmert, who backs the disengage-
ment plan; and Foreign Minister Silvan -
Shalom, who does not, may mount lead-
ership challenges, most Likud insiders
believe Netanyahu would win the party
nomination easily.
But what Netanyahu does about dis-
engagement is not a foregone conclu-
sion, and the right-wingers may be dis-
appointed. Despite his criticism of the
plan, Netanyahu is leaving his options
open. Rather than rejecting it outright,
he has laid down three conditions for
supporting the plan:
• That Israel control border crossing
points to prevent arms from flowing into
Palestinian areas;
• That the United States recognize a
route for the West Bank security fence
that puts more Jewish settlements on the
Israeli side;
• And that the United States publicly
back Israel's position that no Palestinian
refugees be allowed to return to Israel
proper.
Insiders say this stance gives
Netanyahu maximum flexibility: If he
becomes prime minister, he will be able
to keep a right-wing coalition together
while negotiating with the United States
on his conditions for disengagement.
If Sharon survives, Netanyahu will be
able to claim the credit if his conditions
are met, or choose his moment to con-
front Sharon if they are not.
In both his disengagement plan and in
targeting Hamas, Sharon has been play-
ing for high stakes. Some critics even
imply a connection between his bold
moves and the burgeoning legal case
against him. Indeed, Sharon's critics on
both the right and the left accuse the
prime minister of playing with fire.
In contrast, his supporters say that his
twin policy of cracking down on terror-
ism and disengaging from the
Palestinians could transform the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict. To make those poli-
cies work, however, Sharon needs more-
time. And as Mazuz assesses the evi-
dence, Sharon's time could be running
out.
Latest Israeli news: wvvw.jevvish.com

4/2
2004

17

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