In what some Israeli commentators described as a bid to divert attention from the scandal, Sharon was reported on Friday to be planning talks in Washington next month with US President George Bush on the stalled US-backed peace "road map". 

An opinion poll in the Maariv newspaper showed his popularity rating had dropped to 33%, matching a record low in December, and that 53% of the public believed he was involved in corruption. 

But a defiant Sharon told cheering supporters of his rightist Likud party on Thursday he had no plans to resign after the indictment this week of David Appel, a land developer and political kingmaker charged with trying to bribe him. 

"I came here as prime minister and the chairman of the Likud
party... a position I intend to fill for many years, at least
until 2007," Sharon said in Tel Aviv. 

Cabinet mutiny

However, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz from Shinui, a centrist party and Sharon's biggest coalition partner, signalled the former general could face a cabinet mutiny down the line. 

Asked if Sharon should step down if charges were brought against him, Poraz told Israel Radio: "Definitely." Earlier this week, Shinui leader Yosef Lapid said the prime minister would have to "draw conclusions" if charged. 

Appel, a Likud stalwart, has denied all charges, which relate to a period in the 1990s when Sharon was foreign minister. Sharon, 75, has also denied wrongdoing. 

A Justice Ministry source has said any indictment could be weeks or months away. 

US trip

The West Bank separation barrier
remains an obstacle to peace 

Palestinians, meanwhile, spoke of their fears of political chaos in Israel and voiced long-standing distrust of Sharon. 

Writing in the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayam, commentator Ashraf al-Ajrami said a cornered Sharon could opt for "military escalation" to take the spotlight off his troubles. 

Israeli media reports said Sharon would outline during his ninth White House visit some of the unilateral steps he plans to take should peacemaking with the Palestinians collapse. 

There has been no official announcement of a trip, which the reports said was agreed at a meeting in Washington on Thursday between Sharon's close aide Dov Weissglass and US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. 

Unilateral separation

Sharon has threatened Israel could unilaterally separate from the Palestinians in a way that would leave them with less territory than they have been seeking for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

A de facto border, or what Israel describes as a "security line" against suicide bombers, could follow the path of the controversial barrier it is building in the West Bank. 

The barrier, a razor wire-tipped fence in most places and a looming concrete wall in others, is charted to loop around Jewish settlements deep inside the West Bank. Palestinians call the project a land grab that prejudges borders.