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Sharon may face legal challenge

Businessman's indictment on bribery charges raises questions

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

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TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Prosecutors will decide "within weeks or months" whether to indict Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a scandal involving alleged bribes from an Israeli businessman in the late '90s, Israeli Justice Ministry sources said Wednesday.

Businessman and political activist David Appel was indicted Wednesday on charges of bribing Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a close associate of Sharon's.

At that time, 1998-99, Sharon was Israeli foreign minister, and Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem. Both officials are members of the Likud party.

Prosecutors said they have 200 witnesses to buttress their case on Appel, but attorneys for the businessman maintain their client is innocent.

Defense attorney Moshe Israel told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz , "There was no bribery. There was no giver, and there was no taker."

Sharon and Olmert previously have said they did nothing wrong.

The Appel indictment, filed in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, said the alleged bribes were to get aid in developing a Greek real estate project and secure the rezoning of land near Tel Aviv.

In the late 1990s, according to the charge sheet, "Appel gave Ariel Sharon a bribe in recognition of activities connected to the fulfillment of his public positions."

Appel enlisted the help of Sharon and Olmert because he was having trouble with the project, according to the indictment and prosecutors. The men were to meet with Greek government officials on behalf of Appel, and in return, they allegedly would receive help with their political campaigns, the indictment and prosecutors said.

The businessman is accused of indirectly paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sharon, the charge sheet said. Some of the money apparently went to the prime minister's son, Gilad, who was allegedly paid an inflated salary for his work as a consultant, the indictment said.

The indictment said that "Appel and Gilad came to an agreement, even though Appel knew that Gilad did not have the relevant professional skills. Appel came to an agreement with Gilad to pay out inflated amounts of money to Ariel Sharon's son with a purpose of influencing Ariel Sharon in his public positions."

In the past, Gilad Sharon also has denied wrongdoing.

The Justice Ministry said a decision on whether to indict Olmert and Gilad will be made at the same time as the decision on Sharon.

Some lawmakers from the opposition Labor Party have called for Sharon's resignation. The party is preparing a no-confidence motion for Monday, Israeli officials said.

If Sharon and Olmert were to be indicted, Israeli case law indicates the officials would have to suspend themselves from office and await the conclusion of legal proceedings.

Sharon also faces an accusation that he received an illegal $1.5 million loan during his campaign to win the leadership of the Likud party in 1999. That investigation is ongoing.

CNN's John Vause contributed to this report.

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