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Israeli Scandal: Son of the Godfather and Sopranos returns


[Jerusalem, January 21] A scandal that has been brewing for several months under the seat of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has inevitably boiled over. Likud kingmaker and consiglieri David Appel has been indicted for giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Ariel Sharon, to Gilad Sharon, his son, and to deputy PM Ehud Ohlmert during his campaign for Mayor of Jerusalem, in return for their help in promoting real estate deal deals. Appel told Sharon that his son would make a great deal of money through the deal, and hired him as a consultant at an inflated salary, though he knew that Gilad Sharon was totally unqualified for the job.

The Labor party has tendered a no-confidence motion in the government, though there is little chance of it passing. Under Israeli law, even an indictment against Sharon and Ohlmert themselves would not result in new elections necessarily, since the President could call on another Member of Knesset to form a government. If the PM is temporarily incapacitated, the deputy Prime Minister would take over the government. However, Ohlmert is the deputy PM, so there might be a constitutional crisis of both Sharon and Ohlmert are indicted.

The indictment alleges that Appel was willing to pay Gilad Sharon a salary of tens of thousands of shekels a month and a bonus of $3 million to advance Appel's project for a resort on a Greek island. According to the indictment, Appel actually paid Gilad Sharon $100,000 and transfered over NIS 2.5 million (over half a million dollars) to Ariel Sharon's Shiqmim Negev ranch.

The charges claim that "Appel and Gilad reached an agreement, though Appel knew that Gilad did not have the relevant professional skills. Appel came to an agreement with Gilad to pay out inflated amounts of money to Ariel Sharon's son for the purpose of influencing Ariel Sharon in his public stands."
The allegations state that Appel promised to support Ariel Sharon during the 1999 primaries for the Likud leadership, and also charges Appel with bribing Ohlmert to help with the Greek island project when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem.

Interviewed on Israel radio, Appel's lawyer, Moshe Israel, categorically denied the charges. "There was no bribery, there was no giver and there was no taker," he said. Israel noted that previous bribery charges against Appel had not resulted in a conviction, and predicted the same end for the current case.

Though logically one might think that Sharon and Ohlmert should have been indicted as well, no such indictments were requested by the State prosecutor. Nonetheless, there is wide speculation that Sharon may have to resign or suspend himself. Ya'ad party MK Yossi Sarid said that Sharon should suspend himself, because the scandal would put great pressure on him. According to him, in the present situation, Sharon might start a war or another adventure in order to divert attention from the scandal.

Earlier Sharon was embarrassed when a former strategic consultant,"a private investigator apparently employed by him as a fixer, David Spector, released tapes showing that Sharon knew about foreign campaign contributions, despite previous denials.

Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz called the affair a "political earthquake," and stated that in a country of proper standards, the prime minister would have been forced to resign long ago. "There's Sopranos on television, and there's Sopranos in Israel," Pines-Paz is quoted as saying.

Sharon was re-elected despite numerous allegations of corruption and irregularities in his Likud primaries campaign. Likud MK Naomi Blumenthal has been indicted for favors handed out during the primaries campaign, but few have illusions that that is the entire extent of the corruption. An alleged Ramat Gan crime figure interviewed on Israeli radio explained how it came about that large numbers of voters, of the correct persuasion, had suddenly registered so they could vote in the Likud primaries. It went about like this, "Well you know how it is. When you are in business you do favors, and make friends. So the friends owe you favors. And the friends have friends who owe them favors. So all of my friends returned my favors..." No, this was not written by Mario Puzo. The conversation was in Hebrew on Israeli radio and it really happened - in Israel, and not in New Jersey.

Nonetheless, the Likud got 38 mandates in the elections and Sharon became prime minister. Israeli voters are no longer excited by such scandals, and it is unlikely that they will care about Sharon's latest problems. The alternative to Sharon is not a dovish government that will advance the peace process, but rather a Likud government headed by Sharon's right-wing rivals in the Likud, headed by hawkish and fiscally "conservative" Minister of Finance and former PM, Benjamin Nethanyahu. Appel himself has proven to be teflon coated, escaping conviction on bribery charges in the "Hebron-Bar On" scandal that rocked the Nethanyahu administration. In any case, legal cases in Israel can take many years. Likud politicos are publicly expressing confidence that Sharon will remain prime minister until 2007, and privately scrambling for better positions - just in case someone makes them an offer they cannot refuse.

Ami Isseroff

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