Sharon bribery scandal hits Netanyahu's hopes

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ISRAELI POLICE are recommending the indictment of Ariel Sharon, the Foreign Minister, for bribery, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. This latest scandal for the government comes just two and a half weeks before the election

The case against Mr Sharon is that he allegedly used his influence two years ago to help a former army general, Avigdor Ben Gal, try to win a natural gas contract in Russia. In return, General Ben Gal gave evidence favourable to Mr Sharon in a libel case he brought against the daily Haaretz over his role in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

General Ben Gal's account of Mr Sharon's actions in Lebanon caused surprise because it appeared to contradict earlier statements. Police inquiries have focused on a trip by both men to Russia in 1997, organised by a Russian business tycoon, during which the supply of gas to Israel was discussed.

The State Attorney's office will not decide about prosecuting Mr Sharon until after the election on 17 May, but he is not the only government minister facing legal problems. Police have questioned Tzachi Hanegbi, the Justice Minister, 20 times over alleged influence-peddling in favour of a petroleum concern, but have not completed their investigation.

The Sharon affair comes at the end of a bad week for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister. Opinion polls yesterday showed him 8 per cent behind Ehud Barak, the leader of One Israel, if there is a run-off election on 1 June.

Another scandal involving a powerful Israeli politician may also influence the outcome of the election. Arieh Deri, the leader of Shas, the third biggest party in Israel, is continuing to protest that he was sentenced to four years in prison for accepting bribes last month only because he is a Moroccan-born religious Jew. He says he was framed by the wealthy secular elite.

More important to the outcome of the election than any of these corruption scandals may be the failure of Yitzhak Mordechai, the former defence minister, to make a breakthrough as the prime ministerial candidate of the newly formed Centre Party. One Israel would like him to drop out now and support Mr Barak's party, which would give it a chance of winning in the first round. But Mr Mordechai has pledged to stay in the race.