Prospect of indictment casts shadow on Sharon's U.S. visit

Monday, March 29, 2004

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned visit to the White House to seek U.S. support for his policies may be jeopardized by reports he will be indictment on bribery charges.

Israeli officials said Sharon could be forced to cancel his visit to the United States and even resign from office if a formal recommendation for his indictment is released over the next few weeks. On April 14, Sharon has scheduled a meeting with President George Bush in Washington.

Sharon plans to use the opportunity to discuss Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and other settlement issues, Middle East Newsline reported.

"Once there is an indictment, it's all over," a senior Israeli official said. "The question is whether Sharon can postpone any formal recommendation until after the Bush meeting."

Israeli media outlets reported that a state prosecution team has decided to indict Sharon on bribery charges. They said the recommendation must be approved by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who will begin his examination this week.

Already, Sharon's largest coalition partner, Shinui, has called on the prime minister to suspend himself from any duties should Mazuz accept the prosecution's recommendation for indictment. Other political figures have called for Sharon's resignation. Sharon has refused to comment.

The reports of an impending Sharon indictment came as the White House after months of deliberation -- approved a meeting between Bush and Sharon.

The White House said Bush will meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on April 12, followed by a session with Sharon two days later.

On April 21, the U.S. president has scheduled a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah. A White House statement said all three meetings will deal with the "search for peace in the Middle East, the global campaign against terrorism and bilateral and regional issues."

Israeli officials said that any Sharon meeting with Bush would focus on the prime minister's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as well as parts of the West Bank. Officials said Sharon has sought U.S. recognition for three Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as Israel's right to enter the Gaza Strip in case of a Palestinian attack.

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