JERUSALEM - Israel's attorney general dropped a bribery case against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday, sparing him from criminal charges and clearing the way for his plan to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said there was "insufficient evidence" to charge Sharon with using his influence as foreign minister in 1999 to help a developer build a resort on a Greek island. The ruling rebuffed the recommendation by Israel's state prosecutor that Sharon be indicted.
"The evidence in this file does not bring us, not even near, the reasonable chances for a conviction," said Mazuz, who refused to take questions from reporters. "In every element there is reasonable doubt and sometimes even more than that."
Mazuz said that thousands of hours of telephone conversations secretly taped by police of Sharon, his son and the developer, David Appel, "did not produce the critical evidence, direct or indirect, to substantiate the suspicion that Sharon received a bribe. ... It is a deafening silence."
Sharon's son, Gilad, who worked as a paid consultant for Appel, also was cleared of wrongdoing.
Sharon had no public comment, but according to Israel's Channel 10 television, he said "Thank you" to Mazuz, who informed him of his decision in a telephone call an hour before making it public.
Appel was charged in January with bribing Sharon. His lawyer said yesterday that he would move to throw out the charges because of Mazuz's decision not to prosecute the prime minister.
Sharon remains the focus of a separate police investigation into a $1.5 million loan used to repay illegal foreign campaign contributions.
Yesterday's announcement ends months of political uncertainty and could pave the way for the opposition Labor Party to join Sharon's coalition government. That could create momentum for Sharon's "disengagement plan," including an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said in a statement that the party has not asked for nor has it received an invitation to join the government. But Peres said Labor wants a withdrawal from Gaza "not for the good of the party, but for the good of the nation" and he would support Sharon's endeavors.
"At this moment, and I stress at this moment, toppling the government will also topple the evacuation of Gaza," said Peres. "As a reasonable party, we shall not prevent the evacuation, we shall not prevent peace."
Two parliament members said yesterday that they would file a petition with Israel's supreme court to review the case to resolve the discrepancy between Mazuz and the state prosecutor, Edna Arbel.
But Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, a member of the centrist Shinui Party that is the second-largest faction in Sharon's coalition, gave Mazuz his full backing. "The attorney general's reasons are convincing, detailed and unequivocal," he said. "I see it as an end to this affair."
Mazuz refrained in his 76-page report from rebuking Sharon. He instead stuck to legal arguments on the merits of the case, and in some cases softened issues that when first reported in the Israeli media seemed to implicate Sharon in wrongdoing.
Appel was charged with funneling about $700,000 to Sharon for his help in convincing Greek authorities to rezone property on the island of Patrokios.
The indictment of Appel says he hired Gilad Sharon in 1999 as marketing consultant and wanted Gilad to persuade his father to invite Greek officials to Israel "to impress them and get them to favor the project."
The mayor of Athens visited Jerusalem in July 1999 and dined with Sharon and then-Mayor Ehud Olmert. In return, the indictment says, Appel recruited election workers on Sharon's behalf and paid the dues for new members of Sharon's Likud Party.
The resort was never built, and Mazuz described the scope of the project as unreasonably ambitious. The plans included an underwater train tunnel linking the island to Athens, casinos, golf courses, shopping centers and sports stadiums that would have cost more than $15 billion.
But it appeared that Appel was serious. He invested $14 million in research and hired several consultants. Among them was Gilad Sharon. Mazuz had to decide whether Sharon's son was hired only because of his family ties to the government or to perform actual work.
Arbel, the state prosecutor, called the younger Sharon's job a sham. The son received $640,000 in monthly installments of $20,000 and was promised an additional $3 million in bonuses if the resort was built.
She wrote in her indictment of Appel that the work he did "fell considerably short from the value of the payments he received."
But Mazuz said that Gilad Sharon's was in line with what Appel was paying other consultants - one received $1,000 a day and another was promised a $20 million bonus.
Mazuz also said that Gilad Sharon began work in March 1999 and did not receive any payments until after November 1999. By that time, Sharon was no longer foreign minister and was part of the opposition.
"He filled no role in which he could have helped Appel's business," Mazuz wrote. "There is no basis in the evidence to claim that this was a fictitious employment at bribing Sharon. Gilad had a senior managerial role and was held in the highest esteem for his capabilities and for the quality of his work."
One widely reported excerpt from the police wiretaps quotes Appel telling Sharon in 1999, "The island is in our hands." Mazuz wrote of the assumption that Appel and Sharon were in collusion: "Sharon was not at all familiar with the details of the Greek island deal or with the details of Gilad's employment."