Taking Stock / The $640,000 Question

"As aforementioned, regarding the meeting Sharon held on issues pertaining to Hazohar Tower, he would have done better not to have directly handled Appel's issues given their personal and political ties." (From the attorney general report dismissing the Greek island case and the Appel lands case against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his son Gilad Sharon. Page 41, article 123).

That is more or less the only censure in Attorney General Meni Mazuz's report on the Greek island affair.

Reading the entire 76-page report cover to cover leaves the reader somewhat discomfited.

Throughout the report, one finds testimony tightly linking the entrepreneur Dudi Appel to a Knesset member, infrastructures minister, foreign minister and prime minister, namely Ariel Sharon.

Sharon comes to dinner when Appel needs him. Sharon participates in discussions at the Israel Land Administration regarding Appel's land issues. Sharon exerts special efforts to "save the city of Lod," in a venture that could benefit Appel handsomely.

But the attorney general delved into the dates and found - one cannot link the dates when Gilad Sharon received $640,000 from Dudi Appel and the dates when Sharon strived to assist the builder.

One could accept the claim that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to put the prime minister on trial for corruption. But the distance between that and the utter vindication Mazuz wrote, and then his charges against the prosecution, is vast.

Picking his facts

Mazuz completely ignored the main way that big business and government engage in corruption. Namely, they cast their bread upon the waters, because one day the clerk who picked up the perk will be sitting in the right place to make a very important decision.

And vice versa: the politicians spread bread, too, knowing that when they retire from the ardors of politics for the restful waters of business, they'll be rewarded with a plum job.

Mazuz ruled that the $640,000 paid to Gilad Sharon had been nothing extraordinary given the scope of Appel's Greek island project: $16 billion.

Yet the attorney general fails to relate to the substance of these figures.

1. Where did that outrageous figure of $16 billion come from? Could an Israeli developer of Appel's league really promote a project that size? A tenth of that size?

2. Say he can, even though it would be one of the biggest property projects ever to be built anywhere in the world. Why hire a young man with zero experience on major tourism projects?

3. Say he decides to hire a young inexperienced man. Why pay him $640,000, the kind of fee normally given to experts with proven experience?

Instead of asking these questions, Mazuz chooses to find "evidence" that other experts received high pay on this Greek island project. He mentions that David Spektor also hired Gilad Sharon for a million shekels. Did it never occur to Mazuz that Spektor was paying Gilad for exactly the same reason - namely, that he was Ariel Sharon's son?

Drat, foiled again

Instead of finding evidence to justify the $640,000, Mazuz could have explained something far simpler: that Appel was stuck with 350 acres of land by Lod, at the Ginaton moshav. He'd bought the land in July 1997 for $24 million, hoping the Israel Land Administration would rezone it for housing.

But those pesky ILA people wouldn't bend the rules for him. Even the meeting his friend Sharon the infrastructures minister summoned in September 1997 with the ILA bureaucrats proved fruitless: the intransigent professionals refused to rezone the land.

ILA people questioned by the police repeated time and again that Sharon had not pressured them. At the meeting about Appel's lands, they said, the only thing was "dissatisfaction emanating from the minister Sharon." After the meeting, they said, he rebuked them, but the reprimand was general in nature, not about Appel's lands.

No, Sharon did not compel them to help his friend Appel; he just summoned a meeting about the matter and then issued generalized rebukes.

The floating chastisement was of no help to Appel, apparently. Two years later he hired young Gilad Sharon for his harebrained Greek scheme and paid him $640,000.

Mazuz proves that the dates when the money was paid were dates when Sharon was in opposition, not in government. He ignores the possibility of Appel calculating Sharon's return to power, as always, over land in Israel. Sharon has a thing for land. Over the last 15 years, every few years Sharon managed to assure himself of control over the Housing Ministry or the Infrastructures portfolio of the Israel Land Administration, or all of them together.

Mazuz goes out of his way to scrub the prime minister squeaky clean, yet the image arising from his report is stained. It suits the stereotype of what happens when you mix real estate sharks with ministers, family, business and government. The resulting mishmash doesn't look pure as the driven snow.

If the Sharon case had closed with a whimper, like so many other corruption cases, because of the difficulty in consolidating solid evidence, that would be one thing. But Mazuz closed it while crying the prime minister's innocence from the rooftops. He turned that day, as retired justice Yitzhak Zamir memorably said, into a holiday for corruption.