Israel’s attorney-general dropped a bribery case against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, a move which could boost his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz told a news conference he had found no evidence for a reasonable chance of conviction against Ariel Sharon, despite the chief prosecutor’s recommendation Sharon be charged.

The decision was likely to help Sharon overcome resistance within his right-wing camp to his blueprint for “disengagement” from the Palestinians and forge a “unity” coalition with Shimon Peres’s opposition Labour Party if needed to carry it out.

“As a friend, I was pained by the opening of the case (against Sharon) and I am happy he got out of it,” Peres, who has known the former general for decades, told reporters.

An indictment could have toppled Sharon, 76, and sunk the Likud party leader’s landmark plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank.

Prosecutors had looked into the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sharon’s son Gilad by Israeli land developer David Appel, who hired him in the late 1990s to help plan an Aegean island resort, which was never built.

They investigated whether Sharon, foreign minister when his son was given what Mazuz described as a senior administrative role in the project, used his position to help Appel — a Likud activist — promote the enterprise.

“For over two years, police listened to Appel’s two phone lines, recording thousands of conversations. These wiretaps yielded no evidence, direct or indirect, for substantiating the suspicion that Sharon was bribed by Appel,” Mazuz said.

“This absence of proof is…a deafening silence,” he said in a statement devoid of any criticism of Sharon.

Mazuz also closed the case against Gilad Sharon, noting payments for his services had not begun until late 1999, when his father was no longer foreign minister and in the opposition.

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