Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was questioned Monday night for more than three hours by police at his residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem over suspicions he received illegal gifts from two businessmen.
The head of the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit, Dep.- Ch. Koresh Barnur, arrived at the Prime Minister’s Residence early Sunday evening.
Police were with the prime minister for a little over three hours, before leaving his residence around 11 p.m., after the first of what is expected to be several interrogation sessions.
Police would not provide any further details.
Netanyahu – who has denied the allegations – is suspected of receiving improper gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from Israeli and foreign businessmen, in a manner which breached his duty of trust as a public servant.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit issued a statement after the completion of the questioning, confirming that the probe has become a full-fledged criminal investigation.
Mandelblit said Netanyahu has been accused of ethics breaches, and that his office gathered sufficient evidence to justify ordering a full criminal investigation.
Mandelblit’s office confirmed that it ordered a preliminary review in July of a variety of allegations. He noted that his office looked into and dismissed allegations in four areas: that Netanyahu ran an unreported, illegally financed shadow campaign in the 2009 general election; that Netanyahu rigged the Likud primary results in 2009; that he received gifts and benefits from wealthy people while overseas; and that he double-dipped in payments for flights overseas.
Mandelblit said many investigative activities were undertaken, including questioning dozens of interviews and obtaining a large volume of documents, including from foreign citizens. Mandelblit, State Attorney Shai Nitzan and top police officials met dozens of times to discuss ongoing developments.
Multiple sources said Netanyahu was confronted during the investigation with testimony from two businessmen he had alleged ties to.
According to Channel 2, Netanyahu did not know about all the suspicions investigators presented during his questioning.
Earlier on Monday, the prime minister continued to show confidence that the investigation into graft allegations against him would lead nowhere.
“I see the spirit of celebration in the television studios,” Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting. “Wait with the celebrations; don’t hurry.”
The prime minister then repeated what has become his catchphrase in relation to investigations – “There will be nothing because there is nothing” – and the Likud activists and MKs in the room applauded him.
At the opening of the meeting, Bitan said the whole party believes in Netanyahu and hopes he will remain prime minister for many more years.
Participants in the meeting applauded that comment as well.
On Monday morning, the Prime Minister’s Residence was closed off and a black partition was erected on the gate, to keep out the prying eyes of the media.
There is allegedly a second, more serious case against Netanyahu, the details of which remain unknown. Channel 2 alluded to the possibility of the more severe charge being related to an attempt to receive a bribe, though the charge is notoriously hard to prove because it means that no bribe was received.
Over the weekend, Netanyahu issued various responses denying all accusations and insinuating his accusers of trying to implicate him with the police, since they could not beat him at the ballot box. “Try to replace the prime minister at the ballot box, as is customary practice in a democracy,” the prime minister wrote on his Facebook page Saturday night.
On Monday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett showed his support for Netanyahu at a Bayit Yehudi faction meeting.
Asked if Netanyahu should resign as a result of the probe, Bennett said: “No... An investigation can end with nothing."
“It is of great importance that governments in Israel are stable. I think governments should last four years, because it takes time to become effective, and this is a good, nationalist government,” Bennett added.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid expressed hope that the investigation would not find fault with Netanyahu, saying, “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.”
Lapid also reiterated that the prime minister is considered innocent until proven guilty.
“We need to let the police do their work,” he said. “That said, for the good of the country and the people, it needs to be done quickly.
We can’t allow what happened around the investigation of [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert to be repeated. We can’t sink into months of investigations... Let’s finish this without dragging our feet.
“It can’t be that instead of sitting with the Mossad, Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency], IDF chief of staff and finance minister, the prime minister will spend his time with lawyers preparing for the investigation and then with the police while he is being questioned... The prime minister needs to be focused on other things, not on proving his innocence,” Lapid added.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said it is a difficult day for the country when its prime minister is under investigation.
“We are not happy for his misfortune,” Herzog stated. “This is a country with a rule of law, and we must respect law enforcement.”
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