Wag the dog: Official says Sharon weighed war during probe

Friday, December 31, 2004

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon considered launching a war in the Middle East to divert attention from a police investigation into allegations that he accepted bribes, an Israeli newspaper reported.

At the conclusion of a meeting on the subject, the prime minister decided instead on a plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, according to the report.

A former member of Sharon's government said the prime minister met his aides in 2003 and discussed a range of options to respond to a criminal investigation, which also involved his sons. Former Deputy Education Minister Zvi Hendel said the war option was discussed by Sharon and his aides as a means to divert attention from the probe of a series of alleged criminal deals by the prime minister.

Hendel, who resigned from the government in June 2004 after he opposed Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, said the prime minister convened such aides as Dov Weissglass, then chief of staff, Eyal Arad, Sharon's strategic adviser and Sharon's son, Omri.

"You have to think of a big move, otherwise we are in trouble," Hendel quoted Weissglass as saying during the meeting that took place at Sharon's ranch.

Hendel told the weekly newspaper "Sheva" that the first option was to launch a war. But Hendel, a parliamentarian who represents the National Union Party, said Sharon's advisers ruled this out on grounds that a regional conflict could cause greater political damage to Sharon.

At that point, Arad proposed that Sharon order a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Hendel said. Arad was said to have argued that such a plan would win immediate support from Israel's leftist elite while not hurting the prime minister's support among right-wing voters.

Hendel said that at first Sharon vigorously opposed Arad's suggestion. But at the next meeting, Sharon's son, Gilead, also under investigation, said his father had no better plan.

"Father, there is no choice," Hendel quoted Gilead as saying. "This is a plan that is easy to market and we will go for this."

At that point, Hendel said, Sharon agreed and approved a plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In early 2004, Sharon expanded this to the northern West Bank.

"We are the victims for his efforts to save himself from a criminal complication," Hendel said.

The former minister quoted Sharon as telling a meeting of supporters that he was concerned over his legacy. The prime minister expressed fear that his children would pay for the police investigation.

"What kind of inheritance will I leave my sons," Hendel quoted Sharon as asking in the meeting: "Two cells in prison?"

Hendel said he tried to meet Sharon to dissuade him from the withdrawal plan, but the prime minister refused to see the deputy minister. Hendel said Jewish settlement leaders decided against publicizing Sharon's intention to announce a withdrawal in hope that it could be stopped in another way.

"In retrospect, I say that it's a pity that we didn't torpedo this [by revealing the Sharon meetings with his aides]," Hendel said. "Then, it would have been more credible."

Hendel said the Sharon meetings took place in the fall of 2003. He said that just months earlier, during the elections in February of that year, Sharon rejected a proposal of his challenger, Labor Party's Amram Mitzna, for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"The media has not blown up the episode [of Sharon's meetings with his aides] because it has been recruited in Arik's process," Hendel said, referring to diminuitive employed for Sharon. "But everyone knows this is correct, that Sharon is corrupt and is acting not out of pure motives.

Sharon knows this himself and that's why he can't look me in the eye."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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