Israeli police interrogate PM Netanyahu for three hours over ‘illegal gifts’ from businessmen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 2:09am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 8:31am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was grilled by police investigators for over three hours at his office Monday night, opening what could be a politically damaging criminal investigation into suspicions that he improperly accepted gifts.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, but the arrival of the national fraud squad indicated questions raised about him are considered serious enough to merit an investigation. Police said Netanyahu was questioned “under caution,” a term signalling that he is a suspect.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Netanyahu was questioned on “suspicions he received benefits.” She said there would be no further details released at this stage.

The police team did not speak to journalists, but Israeli media said they are looking into suspicions that Netanyahu inappropriately accepted expensive gifts from two businessmen. A black screen was had been placed in front of the building in apparent anticipation of the investigators’ arrival and to obstruct the view of journalists seeking to film them.

The move was authorised by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who decided after a preliminary inquiry that there was enough evidence to open a criminal investigation, Haaretz newspaper reported.

Israeli media said the questioning by senior police investigators began on Monday evening, was expected to last several hours and would almost certainly be followed by more interrogation.

Netanyahu told his ruling Likud faction in parliament that those hoping for his downfall would have to “wait with the celebrations, don’t rush. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once again: there will be nothing because there is nothing.”

Photographers were camped outside the heavily guarded residence, hoping to get pictures of investigators arriving. Black screens were erected inside the gates of the property to block the view.

Haaretz and other newspapers said the probe related to gifts worth “hundreds of thousands of shekels” given to Netanyahu by Israeli and foreign businessmen.

Channel 2, a commercial network, said the investigation was one of two cases now open against the prime minister, although it said details of the second remained unclear.

Netanyahu, 67, has been in power on and off since 1996. He is currently in his fourth term as prime minister and will become Israel’s longest-serving leader if he stays in office until the end of next year.

He and his wife, Sara, have weathered several scandals over the years, including investigations into the misuse of state funds and an audit of the family’s spending on everything from laundry to ice cream. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to be questioned in a criminal case.

Ehud Olmert, who held office from 2006 to 2009, is currently serving 18 months in prison after being convicted of breach of trust and bribery in 2014.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was questioned while in office in 2003 and 2004 over allegations of bribery and corruption involving him and his two sons. In 2006, his son Omri was convicted of corruption and served time in prison.

Netanyahu’s police appointment drew a barrage of commentary from the centre-left opposition in parliament, with politicians calling for him to go. But Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said that for the good of the country, he hoped the prime minister would be cleared.

“I wish for him and his family, and the State of Israel, that we uncover that there was no fault in his behaviour. If two prime ministers in a row fall from office because of corruption, it will be very hard to rehabilitate the public’s trust in its leadership.”

Israeli commentators pointed out that while Netanyahu may be questioned, it has happened many times in the past and prime ministers have gone on governing, sometimes for years.