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If he's indicted, defiant Sharon's future is murky

Two Israeli Cabinet ministers said Thursday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have to resign if a bribery investigation leads to his indictment.

Sharon continued to dismiss any such possibility, declaring that he will serve "at least until 2007," when elections are scheduled.

As the conflict with the Palestinians abruptly slipped to the sidelines of Israeli political debate, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy playing near the boundary fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel, his family and hospital officials said.

The Israeli army said it could not confirm the killing. It said that soldiers had opened fire on a group of people seen approaching Gaza's fence with a ladder and that they had wounded two. Israeli paramedics treated the casualties on the spot and then took them to an Israeli hospital, the army said. The youths were unarmed.

On Wednesday, an Israeli court indicted a real estate developer on charges of paying roughly $700,000 to Sharon's son, Gilad, in the hope of bribing Sharon.

The indictment said the developer, David Appel, told Ariel Sharon that his son was expected to make a lot of money, but it did not lay out evidence that Sharon knowingly took a bribe.

Justice officials are looking into whether there is sufficient cause to indict Sharon and his son, and it is likely to be weeks or even months before they reach a decision.

Public opinion polling suggests that Sharon's personal credibility is shaky. Yet the suspicions of bribery did not come as news to the Israeli public. For months the Israeli news media have carried reports of the investigation into whether Appel, beginning in the late 1990s when Sharon was foreign minister, had sought to buy Sharon's help in an unsuccessful plan to build a casino and resort on a Greek island.

For some time, jockeying has been under way within Likud to eventually succeed Sharon. Political analysts now expect that to intensify. Sharon's fellow Likud leaders have been notably silent since the indictment was announced.

One exception was Limor Livnat, the minister of education, who told Israel radio Thursday evening that Sharon "will have to resign" if indicted.

"If an indictment will be served _ I hope it will not happen _ there is no doubt that he will not be able to continue holding onto his position," Livnat said.

Earlier, Avraham Poraz, the minister of interior and a leader of the Shinui faction, which promotes itself in part as pursuing clean government, also said that an indictment would force Sharon to resign.

Yet Sharon has a history of defying apparent political doom, and the political and legal limits on governing Israel under indictment are untested. In cases involving a Cabinet minister and a deputy minister, Israel's high court has twice ruled that an indictment on charges reflecting moral lapses compelled resignation.

"It's not written in the law, but it's a precedent, a binding precedent, of the Israeli Supreme Court," said Moshe Negbi, a legal commentator for Israeli radio who teaches public and constitutional law at Hebrew University.

But Miriam Gur-Arye, a professor of criminal law at Hebrew University, said the court might treat a prime minister as being in a different category, since his resignation could bring down a government.

She said that before indicting Sharon, justice officials would have to ask the Israeli Parliament to strip him of his immunity to prosecution. Members of Parliament have traditionally been reluctant to approve such requests.

The decision on whether to indict will be up to one person, Israel's attorney general. By coincidence, the Israeli government is scheduled to vote Sunday on a new attorney general.