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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Omri Sharon, once one of the most powerful figures in Israeli politics - and today almost a tragic one - is due to go to prison on July 22 unless he decides to ask the Supreme Court for permission to appeal his sentence.
Earlier this week, a panel of three Tel Aviv District Court judges agreed to shorten the sentence from nine to seven months in jail, but, in a two-to-one decision, rejected his appeal to commute it to public service work.
Sharon was originally convicted in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on February 13, 2006 on charges of making false entries into the documents of a corporate body, making a false oath and violating the Political Parties Law. The court held him responsible for collecting NIS 6 million in secret campaign funding from contributors in the US in violation of a law limiting the amount of money that candidates running in party leadership primaries could raise to NIS 326,000.
Sharon was the first elected official in Israel to be convicted on criminal charges involving party funding violations. This fact figured prominently in the arguments that his lawyers, Dan Scheinemann and Noyit Negev, raised in Tel Aviv District Court before judges Yehudit Shitzer, Zecharya Caspi and Ze'ev Hammer.
The defense argued that the magistrate's court had been guilty of "extreme discrimination," in handing down such an allegedly harsh sentence against Sharon, and that it had ignored the problematics of the party funding restrictions which were allegedly out of date and impossible to obey. The lawyers also argued that during his trial, Sharon had accepted full responsibility for the affair, had already paid a heavy price by voluntarily resigning his Knesset seat and had expressed remorse for his actions.
The lawyers also charged that the lower court had ignored the human aspects of the case: the fact that his mother, Lilly, who was his father's closest political adviser, had fallen sick with cancer and could no longer help her husband, whose political fortunes at the time were at a particularly low ebb.
Omri said he had taken upon himself to take his mother's place, out of love and devotion to his father.
ALTHOUGH SHITZER and Hammer agreed that Sharon's sentence had been too harsh, they insisted that he must serve time in jail for what he had done. "No one has the right to place himself above the law, even if he feels that it is impossible to adhere to it," they wrote. "[Sharon's] conduct damaged the rule of law and the sovereignty of the Knesset, which is the body authorized to amend legislation if it is necessary."
Caspi cast his vote in favor of Sharon's appeal, and said that the lower court decision had been too harsh. He emphasized the fact that Sharon had acknowledged his guilt and immediately resigned from the Knesset. "Not many people in similar circumstances have conducted themselves like Omri Sharon," wrote Caspi. "Most of them have waged a bitter fight to prove their innocence. Very few of them have decided to immediately divest themselves of what is apparently a source of power and influence."
He also referred to what he described as Sharon's "personal suffering" because of his father's illness. It has been reported that since Ariel Sharon's devastating stroke at the end of 2005, Omri has been at his bedside every day.
THE PUBLIC agitation over what came to be known as the "straw companies affair" has largely disappeared in view of Ariel Sharon's illness. Previously, however, it was one of the most talked about scandals in the country.
Following the defeat of the Likud in the 1999 elections and the subsequent resignation of party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, the party scheduled a primary on November 2, 1999 to elect a new leader. Ariel appointed Omri to run his campaign. Six months earlier, Ariel's personal lawyer, Dov Weisglass, had registered a company called Annex Research at the request of Yoram Oren, a Sharon fundraiser. Omri and Weissglass appointed Omri's close friend, Gavriel Manor director-general of Annex, with exclusive power to write checks on behalf of the company.
According to the indictment, Sharon used Annex Research as a funnel for receiving money from the US to finance Ariel Sharon's campaign.
The money came from three institutions, The American-Israel Research Friendship Foundation, the Center for National Studies and International Relationships and the College for National Studies.
Sharon set up two book-keeping operations, one open to public review and the other one secret. All of the money "donated" to Annex and spent on the campaign was kept secret and the company gave false receipts describing the expenditures that it made.
The affair was discovered almost by chance by the State Comptroller, who was not responsible for overseeing campaign funding in party primaries, but only in national elections. However, Sharon did not spend all of the illegal contributions in the 1999 primary campaign and used the balance in his victorious race against incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2001.
During his investigation by police, Ariel Sharon maintained that he knew nothing about the financing of his campaigns and, very likely, allowed his son to be the fall guy for the illegal funding.
Omri embraced the role. Before his election to the Knesset, he had invoked the right to remain silent during his investigation. However, after his election, he answered police questions and accepted the blame. Omri and his close friend, Manor, were the only ones indicted in the affair.
IF THERE is a poignant element to this story, other than Omri's devotion to his father, it has to do with Omri's personality. During his trial, 11 character witnesses testified on his behalf, paying tribute to his modesty, altruism and loyalty. For example, Rakefet Katz, who works for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, told the court that Omri Sharon was the only MK who worked on behalf of environmental causes for their own sake, rather than as a public relations spin. Former naval commando Yuval Tamir testified that he was the only MK who stood by the commandos who charged that they had developed cancer because the army had forced them to dive in the heavily polluted Kishon river. Ha'aretz reporter Ari Shavit said that Omri was no innocent, but that his way of life was authentic, modest and lacking all arrogance. He said Omri lived in a simple apartment in Tel Aviv and had about him "a kind of Israeliness that has been lost."
It is likely that Omri Sharon will never be involved in politics again. But unlike other politicians who were forced out because of misconduct, he will probably not regret it.
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