Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Questioned in Graft Investigation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday. “This will all come to nothing, because there is nothing,” he has said repeatedly of recent accusations of impropriety against him. (Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday. “This will all come to nothing, because there is nothing,” he has said repeatedly of recent accusations of impropriety against him. (Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Israeli police investigators questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for three hours at his official residence on Monday evening on suspicion of receiving illicit gifts and favors from business executives.

Mr. Netanyahu was questioned “under caution,” the police said in a statement, implying that there were grounds to suspect that Mr. Netanyahu might have committed a criminal offense. “No further details can be given at this stage,” the statement added.

The Ministry of Justice said late Monday that Mr. Netanyahu had been questioned by investigators from Lahav 433, a police fraud investigation and prosecution unit, with the authorization of the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.

In a detailed statement, the ministry described how the police had gathered testimony from dozens of witnesses, some abroad, and seized documents during a monthslong graft inquiry. While some aspects of the inquiry did not yield evidence of crimes, the statement said, other parts warranted a deeper investigation.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has been subject to police inquiries and investigations in the past that ended without charges, has vehemently denied any impropriety. “This will all come to nothing, because there is nothing,” he has said repeatedly of the latest accusations.

Local news outlets say the investigators are focused on two separate cases, one more serious than the other, but they have offered little detail on the more serious one.

The less weighty one, according to reports in the newspaper Haaretz and other outlets, concerns favors for Mr. Netanyahu, and possibly for members of his family, given by Israeli and foreign business executives. The Israeli police took testimony from Ronald S. Lauder, a conservative American businessman and philanthropist, and a close friend of Mr. Netanyahu’s, when he came to Israel in late September to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and president.

Upon Mr. Lauder’s arrival in Israel, he was asked to meet with the Israeli police “and respond to questions related to an investigation, to which Mr. Lauder is not a party,” Helena Beilin, a Tel Aviv-based lawyer representing Mr. Lauder, said in a statement. “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.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s office, suggesting that he is the victim of a witch hunt, issued a statement over the weekend berating the news organizations for what it described as premature and politically motivated reports. “Try to replace the prime minister at the ballot boxes, as is accepted in democracies,” it added.

In televised remarks on Monday afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu told legislators from his conservative Likud Party in Parliament, “We hear the celebratory spirit and winds blowing through the television studios and in the corridors of the opposition.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Isabel Kershner