The state prosecutor's recommendation to indict Ariel Sharon on bribery charges came just as the Israeli prime minister was putting the finishing touches 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 U.S. and domestic backing for his far-reaching plan while under suspicion 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 said Mazuz has described the case against Sharon as "problematic" and "borderline."
Sharon confidants said they are convinced that, when it comes to the crunch -- with tenuous evidence able to determine a prime minister's political future -- Mazuz will not indict.
Sharon is suspected of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars through his son, Gilad, from Likud activist and millionaire contractor David Appel for helping to promote Appel's real estate interests 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 recommendation, Sharon was working hard to move his disengagement plan forward. He was close to tying up a deal with the Bush administration for U.S. support; he had just made bold moves against Hamas to facilitate Palestinian Authority control of Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, 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 disengagement 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: 11 of 23 Cabinet ministers expressed their opposition before the indictment recommendation, and others may now come out against the weakened prime minister and tip the balance against him.
Labor will stay out of the coalition as long as Sharon remains under a cloud, and party 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 disengagement 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 said he probably would be succeeded by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has shown little enthusiasm for the disengagement plan.
By Israeli law, the resignation of a prime minister does not necessarily trigger a general election. Sixty-one Knesset members can propose an alternative candidate, and the president can confer on him the task of forming a new government.
Though Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, who backs the disengagement plan, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who does not, might mount leadership challenges, most Likud insiders believe Netanyahu would win the party nomination easily.
But what Netanyahu does about disengagement is not a foregone conclusion, and the right-wingers may be disappointed.
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:\n
• That Israel control border crossing points to prevent arms from flowing into Palestinian areas.\n
• That the United States recognize a route for the West Bank security fence that puts more Jewish settlements on the Israeli side.\n
• That the United States publicly back Israel's position that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper.
Insiders said 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 confront Sharon if they are not.
In both his disengagement plan and in targeting Hamas, Sharon has been playing 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 accused the prime minister of playing with fire.
In contrast, his supporters said that his twin policy of cracking down on terrorism and disengaging from the Palestinians could transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To make those policies work, however, Sharon needs more time.
And as Mazuz assesses the evidence, Sharon's time could be running out. Â
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.