World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder Testifies in Netanyahu Gifts Affair

Investigators want to interrogate prime minister over corruption suspicions, but his bureau has been unable to find suitable slot; Netanyahu: Opposition better relax, call off their tailors.

Ron Lauder and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen and Olivier Fitoussi

The police have been trying for several days now to arrange a time to question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over various allegations, but so far without success, according to reports.

The investigators want Netanyahu to set aside a large enough block of time to enable them to discuss all the suspicions against him and obtain his responses. But his bureau said that so far it has been unable to find a hole in his schedule of the requisite length.

The police don’t want to settle for a shorter initial interrogation, because that wouldn’t give them enough time to ask Netanyahu about all the allegations.

On Sunday, Netanyahu rebuffed police suspicions against him, telling a meeting of Likud ministers that he "suggests the opposition to cool down and call off their tailors."

"At least we pay for our own suits," Zionist Union's Tzipi Livni tweeted in response.

The prime minister is expected to be questioned under caution, meaning as a criminal suspect, since Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit recently approved upgrading the probe from a mere inquiry into a full-fledged criminal investigation.

The delay in setting a time for the interrogation was first reported by Channel 2 television on Saturday night.

Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara and son Yair.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Meanwhile, the police have been preparing for the interrogation, whose main focus will be suspicions that Netanyahu and his relatives received illicit gifts and other benefits from various businessmen. As Haaretz reported last week, the case has taken a significant turn over the past few weeks.

A second case involving Netanyahu, which entails far more serious allegations, has been sitting on Mendelblit’s desk for months. But the police decided to focus their planned interrogation mainly on the less serious case, since they hope Netanyahu’s answers on that issue will further their investigation into the more serious matter.

The police have recently deposed witnesses overseas in the illicit gifts case, including some who had previously given statements to the police in Israel. Though the police declined to confirm that one of those witnesses is American-Jewish businessman Ron Lauder, his testimony is considered important and reportedly produced a breakthrough in the case.

The Walla news site reported Saturday that two businessmen have confirmed giving gifts to Netanyahu and his son on several occasions.

On Friday, Channel 2 reported that Mendelblit met with Netanyahu nearly three weeks ago, December 12, to inform him that he is being investigated on suspicion of corruption. According to the report, Netanyahu asked Mendelblit to postpone the police interrogation until after his return from a state visit to Kazakhstan two days later. Ultimately, though, the interrogation was postponed even further due to a new development in the case.

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

As part of their preparations for questioning the prime minister, the police have set up a special task force to deal with the two cases against him. The task force is headed by Chief Superintendent Shlomo Meshulam, a section head within the fraud squad, who will conduct the interrogation together with the fraud squad’s director, Brig. Gen. Coresh Barnoor.

Police are also recruiting investigators from other units onto the task force, to prepare for the possibility that the two cases against Netanyahu will be dealt with separately rather than together.

Lauder's office said in a statement: "Upon Mr. Lauder’s arrival in Israel for the funeral of his friend Shimon Peres last year, he was asked by a law enforcement representative to meet with Israeli police at their office and respond to questions related to an investigation, to which Mr. Lauder is not a party. After a short meeting the following day, he was told that his presence was no longer needed and that there would be no need for additional meetings. This remains the case."