Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday ordered the initial probe of Interior Minister Arye Deri converted into a full criminal investigation, in a decision that could end the career of one of the country’s most dominant politicians.
Deri responded that he was ready to answer any question asked of him and cooperate with all law enforcement authorities.
“I am convinced that my answers will clarify any doubt that I did not do anything wrong,” Deri said.
The investigation will look into how Deri and his wife, Yaffa, acquired multiple real estate properties, despite reporting to tax authorities that he only owns one apartment in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
One question asked will be about a summer home he built in the northern agricultural community of Moshav Safsufa on a 1,000-square plot with two pools and a jacuzzi.
The home, which was completed three months ago, is officially owned by his daughter Dassi Iluz and was mostly paid for by his brother, attorney Shlomo Deri. The contractor who built the home reportedly fought with the family and may have reported them to authorities.
Shas started a campaign proclaiming party chairman Deri’s innocence. Deri himself mocked the charges at a conference in Tiberias.
“When I got home late last night I woke up Yaffa and told her that we became real estate magnates,” he said.” I asked her how it happened. But after we checked, we realized that in the entire country we still have only one apartment that we have been living in for more than 25 years, and we still haven’t stopped paying the mortgage.”
Mandelblit will make key decisions in the Deri case, as well as in that of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who is accused of illegal campaign spending in his 2013 race for Labor Party chairman against then-incumbent Shelly Yacimovich.
State Attorney Shai Nitzan on Thursday recused himself from handling the initial probe into Herzog’s campaign financing.
Nitzan’s deputies will formulate an official recommendation for Mandelblit without their boss’s involvement.
Nitzan is not connected to Herzog, but has connections to others involved in the case and so he has taken steps to avoid any conflict of interest.
As of Thursday night, the Herzog probe remained in the preliminary stages and the attorney- general had not ordered the opening of an official criminal investigation, which would require questioning Herzog under caution as a potential suspect.
On Thursday, Yisrael Hayom republished an article and document it first printed days before last year’s general election, according to which an associate of Herzog used a private company to pay a man who helped run a negative campaign against Yacimovich in Labor’s 2013 leadership primary. The payments totaled some NIS 40,000 in eight checks of NIS 5,000, according to the report.
Herzog responded to the initial probe Thursday at a Tel Aviv convention of Labor branch heads, saying that he would prove his innocence and take revenge against whoever got him in trouble with the police.
“We are not suckers and we understand well why such a thing happened, and whoever stands behind it will receive a political blow that will teach him a lesson that he will not forget for many years,” Herzog said.
“There will always be those who try to topple you and to use the police as part of their campaign. We know such tactics and we have dealt with them before, and we will respond with full force to any attempt to use the police against us.”
Herzog said he was not worried about the probe and would cooperate with any investigatory process.
“The charges are ridiculous and they are intended to deter me from running and leading the Zionist Union,” he said. “But I will run [in the next party leadership race]. I will win. And I will make sure that whoever used this approach will regret it.”
Herzog’s associates said the allegations were published three days before last year’s general election. His chief of staff Eyal Shviki accused his rivals in Labor of being behind the investigation.
“Responses of certain people create concern that political people crossed redlines and are trying to use the police for their political needs,” Shviki wrote on Twitter.
But potential Labor leadership candidate MK Erel Margalit said that he and his strategist Moshe Klughaft were not involved in any way.
“I say this with my hand on my heart, with certainty, and completely,” Margalit told Israel Radio.
Yacimovich has not responded to the probe but her former chief of staff Ofer Cornfeld told the Knesset Channel that “she is not happy about this in any way” and that they hope Herzog emerges innocent.
“I know there are rumors, but I have no connection to the story whatsoever,” Cornfeld said. “It was a negative [primary] campaign, but I was surprised by the criminal element. On our side, we kept it clean, but on the other side, there was a negative campaign using certain methods.”
Herzog’s political partner, MK Tzipi Livni, expressed support on Thursday both for Herzog and the legal system. Livni is one of the speakers at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on May 22.
Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ben Hartman contributed to this report.