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January 22, 2004

Will Sharon Weather Israel ‘Watergate’?

"Ariel Sharon will leave office this year, not because he will be tried, but because the Sharons went too far."

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/will_sharon_weather_israel_watergate_20040123

Gilad Sharon, son of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Gilad Sharon, son of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

As with President Richard Nixon in the Watergate affair, tapes and an attempted cover-up could be the undoing of Israel's scandal-haunted leader.

After audiotapes and videotapes that aired on prime-time television last week suggested that Ariel Sharon knew more than he has admitted about illegal fund-raising during his 1999 bid for Likud Party leader, pundits and politicians say the prime minister won't see out the year in office.

Sharon said he isn't worried and has no intention of resigning. But the race for succession is gathering pace in the Likud, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, well in the lead.

The tapes released by David Spector, a political consultant who worked for Sharon for about a year before and after the 1999 campaign, show Sharon's close advisers unabashedly contemplating illegal campaign funding.

In one tape, Uri Shani, then the Likud's director general, tells Sharon's son, Omri, that he could transfer Likud funds to the campaign coffers in a way that would be untraceable. In a separate taped telephone conversation with Spector, Ariel Sharon asks about U.S. and European donations to what is believed to be an election fund, suggesting that he followed the wider illegal donation process in great detail.

Even if the tapes don't prove criminal wrongdoing by the man who is now prime minister, they do imply a readiness to bend the rules, pundits say. They also suggest Sharon lied to the state comptroller in April 2001, when he said he had no idea how campaign funds were raised and that his two sons had handled all money matters.

Things are liable to get worse for Sharon soon. The state prosecution is expected to file bribery charges this week against David Appel, a wealthy building contractor and Likud activist with close ties to Sharon.

One of the charges relates to a Greek island that Appel wanted to buy in the late 1990s for tourist development. He paid Sharon's son, Gilad, hundreds of thousands of dollars for his "advice" on the project, with a promise of $3 million more if the deal went through -- money that police suspect was a kickback to Sharon senior, then the foreign minister, for his help in advancing the project with Greek authorities.

Gilad Sharon, at least, was not unaware of the risk he was taking. An earlier Spector tape shows him worrying that the affair could land him in jail. If Appel stands trial for allegedly giving bribes, the issue of prosecuting those who took them will arise.

During the investigations, Sharon's public standing has been hurt further by his sons' failure to cooperate with authorities. Omri Sharon, who is a Knesset member, answered police questions but said virtually nothing. Gilad Sharon evoked his right to silence, even refusing to produce relevant documents.

The Supreme Court eventually ordered Gilad Sharon to produce the documents, but, according to the Tel Aviv District Court, he held back key documents relating to a $1.49 million loan the Sharons took to pay back illegal campaign donations.

The accretion of evidence, the growing suspicion of an attempted cover-up and the fact that the prime minister isn't saying anything to the Israeli public on the issue all are undermining Sharon's stature. Even if there aren't criminal proceedings against him in the end, several seasoned observers predict that he will have to go soon.

"Ariel Sharon will leave office this year," Dan Margalit wrote in Israel's daily Ma'ariv, "not because he will be tried, but because the Sharons went too far. In the Likud, they already are talking about his resignation. Knesset members are getting ready to abandon his sinking ship, and this time it's easy, because his resignation will not entail new elections."

Margalit sees a pattern similar to Watergate three decades ago and a corruption investigation several years ago against Ezer Weizman, an Israeli president. Things built up slowly in those cases, until a snowball effect drove Weizman from office.

Polls suggest Margalit may be right. Sharon's credibility and popularity seem to be ebbing. According to a mid-January poll in Israel's daily Yediot Achronot, 67 percent of Israelis believe Sharon knew about illegal campaign fund-raising; only 17 percent accept his claim that he didn't.

According to the poll, most Israelis -- 53 percent -- still think Sharon is doing a good job as prime minister, but that's down dramatically from his 69 percent approval rating in August. Approximately 46 percent now say Sharon should resign, up from 33 percent when the scandals broke a year ago.

In the Likud, the prevailing assumption is that they will have to pick a new prime minister sometime in 2004. There are five major candidates: Netanyahu, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat.

Mofaz, who is not a Knesset member, would be eligible only if new parliamentary elections are held. But under a new election law, if a prime minister resigns, the president can call on another Knesset member to form a new government without a general election. That's the more likely scenario, and it would sideline Mofaz.

The key question is who will choose the new party leader -- the Likud's Central Committee or the full party membership. Netanyahu probably would win in either forum, but he prefers the full, 300,000 party membership, where he holds a substantial lead.

So would Olmert, who is not popular in the Central Committee. Shalom, who has a strong power base among party activists, is pushing for a vote in the committee.

The issue will be resolved by a party convention next month. Latest polls of the Likud membership show 44 percent supporting Netanyahu, 21 percent backing Mofaz, 9 percent for Olmert, 7 percent for Shalom and 4 percent for Livnat. If Mofaz doesn't run, support for Netanyahu goes up to 49 percent.

If the vote goes to the Central Committee, Netanyahu still would be the favorite, but the outcome would be dependent on internal wheeling and dealing, in which he might be outmaneuvered.

All the speculation could prove premature, however. Sharon insists that he won't resign, and some commentators think he'll weather this storm, as he has so many times before.

Gidon Samet of Ha'aretz noted that many wrote off Sharon when the scandal broke a year ago, yet he remains very much in control. Israelis are confused, Samet argued. He said they may not trust Sharon personally, but they cling to him as the strongman to see them through difficult times.

"Arik," he wrote, using Sharon's nickname, "will remain at the head of a perplexed society, whose compass has failed it and whose contradictions he represents. He will stay on to the end, the bitter end."

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