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Israeli bribery indictment could touch Ariel Sharon

An Israeli court on Wednesday indicted a prominent businessman on charges of attempting to bribe Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the late 1990s, when he was foreign minister.

Sharon has not been charged, but Justice Ministry officials say they are considering whether to indict him.

Because of the case, Sharon's opponents called on him to resign. The prime minister has been under investigation for months over his campaign financing but has not been charged.

The indictment not only threatens Sharon's political career, but also complicates Mideast peace negotiations. Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, say they support the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan to end 40 months of violence, but they remain deadlocked over details.

Sharon, 75, has denied any wrongdoing, and did not comment Wednesday. Aides said he was continuing with his regular schedule.

The indictment in the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court alleges that a real estate developer, David Appel, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sharon's son Gilad and to the Sharon family ranch with the aim of getting Sharon's help in promoting real estate projects.

According to the indictment, Appel agreed in 1998 to make multiple payments, totaling $3-million, to Sharon's son.

After the agreement was reached, Appel paid out $100,000 to Gilad Sharon and nearly $600,000 to the Sharon family ranch, which is owned by Gilad Sharon, the indictment said.

The senior Sharon has lived at the ranch for years and continues to stay there when not at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem.

Appel hired Gilad Sharon to promote the planned development of a Greek island resort, even though the younger Sharon "did not have the relevant professional skills," the indictment said.

During 1998 and 1999, Appel paid "exorbitant funds to the son of Ariel Sharon for the goal of getting action from Ariel Sharon in his public roles," the indictment reads.

In addition, the indictment charges that Appel also tried to bribe Ehud Olmert, who was then mayor of Jerusalem and who is now deputy prime minister.

Appel's Greek island project never won approval. The indictment said he also sought help with real estate deals in Israel. Appel's lawyer, Moshe Israel, said his client is innocent.

"There was no bribery, there was no giver and there was no taker," the Israeli media quoted the lawyer as saying.

Hillel Sommer, a constitutional law scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said the case would probably take years to play out.

Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that government ministers must resign if indicted on criminal charges, a ruling that some legal experts said would extend to the prime minister. Other legal analysts said Sharon would have to step down only if convicted of a crime.

Even without an indictment, the case could create political problems for Sharon. His four-party coalition holds 68 of the 120 seats in Parliament and has been stable in the year since Sharon's dominant Likud Party won a landslide election victory.

However, Sharon could face pressure from within the Likud to step down, or opposition parties could propose a no-confidence vote in Parliament, political analysts said.

"This is very sad, very grave, but this is the reality of Israel in 2004. There's Sopranos on television, and there's Sopranos in Israel," said Ophir Pines-Paz, a legislator from the Labor Party.

But Sharon's party is expected to stand behind him _ 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.

Corruption investigations are an almost permanent feature of political life in Israel. Sharon's two predecessors, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, both faced long-running investigations that were ultimately dropped without charges being filed.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Cox News Service and New York Times was used in this report.