JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was grilled by police investigators for over three hours at his office Monday night, opening what could be a politically damaging criminal investigation into suspicions that he improperly accepted gifts.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, but the arrival of the national fraud squad indicated questions raised about him are considered serious enough to merit an investigation. Police said Netanyahu was questioned “under caution,” a term signalling that he is a suspect.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Netanyahu was questioned on “suspicions he received benefits.” She said there would be no further details released at this stage.
The police team did not speak to journalists, but Israeli media said they are looking into suspicions that Netanyahu inappropriately accepted expensive gifts from two businessmen. A black screen was had been placed in front of the building in apparent anticipation of the investigators’ arrival and to obstruct the view of journalists seeking to film them.
Netanyahu has denied what he calls “baseless” reports that he received inappropriate gifts, a point he reiterated at a meeting of his Likud faction earlier in the day.
“We’ve been paying attention to reports in the media, we are hearing the celebratory mood and the atmosphere in the television studios and the corridors of the opposition, and I would like to tell them, stop with the celebrations, don’t rush,” he said. “There won’t be anything because there is nothing.”
Israel’s Channel 2 TV has said that Netanyahu accepted “favours” from businessmen in Israel and abroad and that he is the central suspect in a second investigation that also involves family members.
The newspaper Haaretz said billionaire Ronald Lauder, a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s, was linked to the affair. Channel 10 TV has reported that Netanyahu’s oldest son, Yair, accepted free trips and other gifts from Australian billionaire James Packer.
In October, Lauder was summoned by police for questioning “related to a certain investigation conducted by them and in which Mr. Lauder is not its subject matter,” said Helena Beilin, Lauder’s Israeli attorney. “After a short meeting, he was told that his presence is no longer required and that there shall be no further need for additional meetings.”
Israel’s Justice Ministry declined to comment.
A campaign is underway by Erel Margalit, an opposition lawmaker of the Zionist Union party, seeking for Netanyahu to be formally investigated over suspicions of prominent donors improperly transferring money for the prime minister’s personal use as well as reports that Netanyahu’s personal attorney represented a German firm involved in a $1.5 billion sale of submarines to Israel.
Netanyahu has long had an image as a cigar-smoking, cognac-drinking socialite, while his wife, Sara, has been accused of abusive behaviour toward staff. Opponents have portrayed both as being out of touch with the struggles of average Israelis.
Over the years, reports have been released about the high cost of the Netanyahus’ housekeeping expenses.
In one case, he was chided for spending $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a flight to London. Even their costly purchases of scented candles and pistachio-flavoured ice cream have been derided.
The Netanyahus have denied any wrongdoing, and say they are the target of a witch hunt by the Israeli media.