Netanyahu Questioned by Police Over Gifts; AG: Evidence Has Mounted Over Last Month

Police found enough evidence to support the questioning of Netanyahu under caution, attorney general says. 'Don't celebrate yet,' Netanyahu said earlier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset faction meeting, January 2, 2017.
Emil Salman

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged Monday night after three hours of police questioning regarding suspicions of graft.

The police questioned Netanyahu over suspicions that he received illicit gifts and other benefits. Haaretz reported last week that the prime minister and his family received benefits worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from businesspeople.

A statement issued by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit late Monday said police found enough evidence to support the questioning of Netanyahu as a possible criminal suspect. 

The decision to question Netanyahu was made in light of evidence collected in the past month, Mendelblit said. The new development "changed the evidentiary situation," he said, warranting a full-blown investigation into the prime minister, as opposed to a preliminary inquiry. 

Responding in a tweet, Netanyahu said on Tuesday : "The years-long, daily persecution of me and my family yesterday turned out to be nothing. I repeat and say, there will be nothing, because there is nothing." 

Mendelblit's statement chronicled the inquiry but did not provide details as to the nature of the developments or the suspicions in the graft case.

"The claims that ultimately led to the decision to question Netanyahu came up three months ago as initial suspicions," the statement said. "Since then, the police have made major efforts to examine them and find evidence to support them."

According to the attorney general, the police have been examining "a long list of claims" against the prime minister since July.

"The inquiry developed and branched out in directions different from the ones that initially launched it," he said, explaining that new claims were raised as the inquiry continued. As a result, Mendelblit said, the police were periodically instructed to expand the inquiry.

The statement also detailed suspicions that had been dropped. 

Mendelblit said Netanyahu had been cleared of receiving forbidden campaign funds for the 2009 elections. Another was the claim that the results of the Likud party primaries in 2009 had been tampered with. Mendelblit also said that Netanyahu had been cleared of receiving double funding for trips abroad in the case known as Bibi-Tours.

The statement said additional information would be released to the public pending the development of the investigation.

Hours before he was to be questioned, Netanyahu cautioned his critics, "don't celebrate yet.

"Nothing will come [of this investigation] and you will continue to spew out  hot air," Netanyahu said.

The interrogation focused on the less serious of two cases involving Netanyahu that police are looking into – suspicions that he and his family received gifts and other benefits worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from businesspeople.

As Haaretz previously reported, police have deposed witnesses abroad as well as in Israel about the case. One witness whose deposition led to a breakthrough was Jewish American businessman Ron Lauder, a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s.

The police believe the value of gifts given by Lauder to Netanyahu is greater than what he admitted to and that they were not given in friendship, but in hopes of gaining some benefit.

Police are hoping their interrogation of Netanyahu will also shed additional light on a second, more serious case whose full details have not yet been made public, sources privy to the investigation say. Details of this case were presented to Mendelblit a few months ago.

Netanyahu has strongly denied all the allegations against him.

“All previous so-called affairs have proved baseless and so it will be with the allegations now published in the media,” Netanyahu said on Friday. “They won’t come to anything, because there isn’t anything.”

Knesset Member David Amsalem, chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, lashed out at the police’s investigations and intelligence department in a Facebook post on Sunday, accusing them of taking steps that amount to political persecution of the prime minister.

“The police’s conduct is different when it comes to investigations of the prime minister,” wrote Amsalem, whose committee oversees the police. “With regard to ordinary people, the police lack motivation. I assume that if Netanyahu weren’t prime minister, they wouldn’t summon his son to check if he’d been invited to some hotel or other."

“There’s an entire enormous army here that’s trying to replace the prime minister,” he continued. “In my opinion, there’s also funding from abroad. They’re doing everything possible in order to oust Netanyahu and bring the left-wing agenda to power."

“The situation we’re witnessing is unbelievable. You replace a prime minister at the polls, not via Meni Yitzhaki,” Amsalem wrote, referring to the head of the investigations department.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid also addressed the investigation on Monday. During a Knesset faction meeting he said that he “Wishes that no flaw is found in Bibi’s behavior," referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“If two prime ministers go down because of corruption, it will be difficult to restore people’s trust in politics,” Lapid said, referring to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s convictions. “Netanyahu has the presumption of innocence. For the sake of the country this has to be quick. We cannot allow what happened to Olmert – months and months of investigations – to happen again. I’m calling on everyone involved to finish this without dragging it out. Clear all schedules and let the police get to the truth.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said, “This is a tough day for Israel, with a prime minister under investigation. We don’t have a bit of schadenfreude. The basic thing is that this is a state of the rule of law.” 

Herzog decried efforts to pass legislation that would give a sitting premier immunity from investigation and prosecution.