Fraud detectives question Sharon over bribes suspicion

Ariel Sharon's premiership is rapidly turning into a drama-a-day soap opera - an EastEnders of the Middle East.

Less than a week after the Prime Minister put his coalition at risk by announcing a plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip, Israelis are asking whether the justice system will let him stay in office to carry it out. Fraud squad detectives questioned Mr Sharon under caution for two and a half hours yesterday in his Jerusalem residence over suspicions that he accepted bribes from a property developer. Mr Sharon denied any wrongdoing.

The attorney general, Menachem Mafuz, is expected to decide by early April whether to indict him. The developer David Appel has already been charged with attempting to buy Mr Sharon's favours by hiring his younger son, Gilad, to advise him on a Greek island property deal. Gilad Sharon was to have been paid millions of shekels, although his qualifications for the job have been challenged.

The police were believed to have asked Mr Sharon what he understood from a recorded conversation, leaked to the media, in which Mr Appel told him Gilad stood to earn "a lot of money". After several failed prosecutions of other political figures, government lawyers are unlikely to indict the Prime Minister unless they feel confident they have a cast-iron case. They would have to prove that Mr Sharon knew he was being bribed and not just being helped by an old friend, a subtle distinction endorsed in the past by the Supreme Court.

Right-wing critics, including one of his own deputy ministers, Zvi Hendel, have accused Mr Sharon of launching his Gaza plan to distract attention from the investigation. Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper that the Prime Minister was "trying to evacuate his investigations from the top of the media and public agenda". But he questioned whether Mr Sharon was purely "evacuating Jews from their homes in order to stay in power". But the latest opinion poll gave him the benefit of the doubt by 57 per cent to 24.

Rebel right-wingers are plotting to bring down the government. Settler rabbis declared a day of fasting "to annul the evil decree and save the people of Israel". The ultra-nationalist Kach movement announced that it was printing stickers branding Mr Sharon a traitor - a chilling echo of a campaign it mounted before the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

The impression is growing that Mr Sharon, who offered to put his plan to a referendum, means business. But Israeli and Palestinian sceptics detect a Machiavellian motive. "I think he is serious," David Kimche, a former director general in the Foreign Ministry said. "But one has to see it within the wider framework. He is willing to sacrifice the Gaza Strip in order to preserve as much of the West Bank as possible in Israeli hands ... When he decides something is for the good of the country, he doesn't give a damn. And he feels he has the backing of a majority of the country. That makes it more difficult for his party members to oppose it."

Yasser Arafat's security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, said: "I hope Mr Sharon is not playing a dirty game. The question is whether such an initiative is the end of the process, or if it's the beginning of ending the occupation and ending the settlements, even in the West Bank."

* Palestinian gunmen burst into Gaza's police headquarters and wounded 11 officers in what police said was a failed bid to assassinate the Palestinian police chief. Maj-Gen Ghazi al-Jabali escaped unhurt.

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