Five officers from the National Fraud Squad and from the department of International Investigations questioned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday at his official residence in Jerusalem on suspicions of bribery and money laundering in two separate incidents.
Police presented Sharon with transcripts of a taped conversation between himself and Likud-affiliated businessman David Appel in 1998, ahead of the Likud Party primary elections, Channel 1 reported on Thursday.
According to the transcripts, Sharon asked Appel a number of times in the course of their conversation "will you help me?" and thanked him a few times for a meal Appel had invited him to.
Some media reports said that the prime minister was questioned under warning. Another round of questioning is likely to take place in the near future.
The investigation, which primarily focused on Sharon's ties to Appel and the Greek island affair, ended after some seven hours; Israel Radio reported that the prime minister cooperated with detectives.
David Appel hired the prime minister's oldest son, Gilad, paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars to market a tourism resort that Appel wanted to build on a Greek island, and for which he was trying to win Greek approval.
Appel's alleged bribes to Sharon came in the form of logistical support, financing and activists during his 1999 campaign for the Likud leadership. Police want to know if the businessman's assistance was a quid pro quo for Ariel Sharon's help, when he was foreign minister, in Appel's efforts with the Greek government and his intervention on behalf of Appel in land deals in the Ramle-Lod area.
The detectives also asked Sharon about alleged bribes he received from businessmen, some foreign, that allowed him to return indirectly illegal donations he had received for his 1999 Likud primaries campaign. Among other things, police suspect that the same foreigners who provided the original donations also gave his sons the money to pay back the illegal campaign funds in 1999.
Sharon was expected to refer all questions to his two sons, Omri and Gilad, as he has done in previous interrogations on these matters. The prime minister had been preparing all week with attorney Dori Kegelsblad - tapped as a possible candidate to replace Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, whose term ends in December.
Investigators are facing a major hurdle in proving their suspicions, due to resistance from the Austrian authorities, where the money from where the Sharon accounts originated, in allowing Israel Police to take depositions in the country.
Police have been stymied in that case by Gilad Sharon's insistence that the right to avoid self-incrimination precludes him from handing over international financial transaction records to investigators.
On the basis of the right to remain silent, Gilad Sharon has kept mum in all police interrogations on the matter. His younger brother, MK Omri Sharon, was previously questioned on the illegal campaign contributions, but apparently did not provide any useful information to detectives.
Police are hoping that the Supreme Court will force Gilad Sharon to hand over financial documents relating to international money transfers as well as secret videotapes he made of conversations between him and Appel, which seem to indicate a lack of trust of the businessman. Appel is also suspected of bribing former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, Sharon's rival in 1999 and the current trade and industry minister and deputy prime minister.
Ariel Sharon has vowed his full cooperation in the investigation, since it was first revealed in December. State Attorney Edna Arbel and the head of the Investigations Department, Moshe Mizrahi, have been keeping close tabs on both inquiries.
The questioning of the prime minister is required for the summations of police material in both cases, which are expected in the near future.
Sharon is the third prime minister to be investigated by police. Previous corruption inquiries against Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud and Ehud Barak of Labor were eventually dropped.