Police investigators with Israel’s National Fraud Squad drove up to the heavily-guarded residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, launching a criminal probe Tuesday into allegations of financial misconduct. Netanyahu was interrogated for three hours on suspicion that he improperly accepted gifts from wealthy supporters in Israel and abroad.
Pointing to the gravity of the case, police say the prime minister was questioned “under caution,” meaning anything he says could be used as evidence against him.
Netanyahu, the longtime conservative leader of the right-wing Likud party, describes the allegations as “baseless.” He even took a swipe at the Israeli media, accusing them of conducting a witch hunt.
“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,” the prime minister told a meeting of Likud lawmakers. “Nothing will happen [with this case] because there is nothing.”
Details of the allegations are sketchy.
“The nature of the investigation precludes us at this stage from giving details of the ongoing investigation,” Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said in a statement.” But we will consider releasing more information from time to time according to developments.”
He said that new and significant information gave impetus to the investigation which began three months ago, turning it into a criminal probe.
Pieces of a puzzle
Israeli media are putting together some pieces of the puzzle. According to reports, Netanyahu allegedly accepted gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars from at least two businessmen.
A second investigation involves family members. For instance, Netanyahu’s oldest son, Yair, reportedly accepted gifts including free trips from Australian billionaire James Packer.
It has also been confirmed that another billionaire, American-Jewish cosmetics mogul Ron Lauder, was questioned by police in connection with the matter.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara are no strangers to negative publicity regarding an extravagant lifestyle that seems out of touch with ordinary Israelis struggling with a soaring cost of living.
In 2013 there was a fierce public backlash after the prime minister spent $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a flight to London for the funeral of the late British leader Margaret Thatcher. Other lavish expenses include $1,600 for a hair stylist and $1,750 for a makeup artist during a visit to New York, and an annual $2,000 contract with a Jerusalem ice cream parlor to keep him supplied with his favorite flavor - pistachio.
Never before charged
However, Netanyahu has never been charged with a crime. If he is, and that remains to be seen, it could cost him his job.
His predecessor, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign in 2008 as he was about to be indicted on corruption charges. Olmert was convicted and is now serving an 18-month prison sentence after being convicted of bribery and breach of trust. He is the first Israeli prime minister to spend time behind bars.
Olmert’s departure had significant political repercussions as he was making progress in peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, who opposed the “generous” territorial concessions Olmert had offered, was elected a few months later and the peace process was frozen.
Netanyahu, 67, is now in his fourth term as prime minister, serving on and off since 1996. The length of his time in office is second only to Israel’s legendary first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Legally, Netanyahu can remain in his post during a police investigation and is not required to step down unless there is an indictment. That could take months or even years, and such probes often do not wind up with criminal charges.
The prime minister says he plans to serve out his term, which ends in 2019. He has told his political opponents that if they want to topple him from power, the best place to try is where they have failed time and again before: at the ballot box.