Police query Israeli premier in bribery scandal


JERUSALEM - Police questioned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for more than two hours at his official residence yesterday in connection with a long-simmering bribery scandal, while some political foes derided his talk this week of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a smoke screen for his legal troubles.

Sharon's interlocutors, from a national police unit dedicated to serious crimes, were seeking information about a development deal in Greece allegedly involving one of the prime minister's sons and a former close business associate of the family, a police spokesman said.

Spokesman Gil Kleiman described Sharon, who also was questioned about the matter in October, as fully cooperative with police. Israel Radio, citing police sources, said the prime minister denied any wrongdoing.

"This was a summing-up interview. We were rounding out matters discussed in previous discussions, filling in gaps," said Kleiman. No further questioning of the Israeli leader is being contemplated at this time, he said.

Corruption scandals are an almost unvarying feature of the Israeli political landscape, and it was difficult to assess whether this one poses a serious political threat to Sharon. But if the prosecution moves forward, an indictment could force him from office at what appears to be a crucial junction in the nation's dealings with the Palestinians.

Sharon set off a furor when he said in an interview published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week that he had ordered the drafting of plans for the possible dismantling of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's potential personal exposure in the bribery case was heightened last month when David Appel, a well-known property developer active in the prime minister's Likud Party, was charged with trying to pay off the Israeli leader in exchange for political favors.

Prosecutors alleged that one of Sharon's sons, Gilad, was hired in the late 1990s as a consultant in the purchase of a Greek resort island, although he had little relevant business experience, and that the money was intended to buy the backing of Sharon, who was foreign minister at the time.

The island deal was never consummated.

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