AG formally confirms Netanyahu is under investigation, details cases already closed
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'Bibitours' and several other probes shut down

AG formally confirms Netanyahu is under investigation, details cases already closed

Avichai Mandelblit says there is ‘sufficient evidence’ to justify criminal probe over suspicion the PM received ‘improper benefits from businessmen’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, confers with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, confers with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit confirmed for the first time on Monday that he had ordered a criminal investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, issuing a full statement detailing the lead-up to the investigation.

The statement was issued following a three-hour interrogation of Netanyahu by the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit at his official residence in Jerusalem on Monday. The prime minister, who has publicly denied any wrongdoing, was questioned under caution as a criminal suspect.

Netanyahu is likely to be interrogated again in coming days.

“The Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, was questioned today by Israel Police investigators from the Lahav 433 unit, under the instruction of the attorney general, Dr. Avichai Mandelblit, on suspicion of receiving improper benefits from businessmen,” the statement read.

The statement said that Mandleblit had first ordered a “probe” into Netanyahu in June 2016 after he was presented with information by the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit which included “a long list of allegations that the prime minister had carried out apparent crimes breaching ethical norms.”

Police investigators arrive at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on January 2, 2017 to question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on suspicions of receiving illicit benefits. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Police investigators arrive at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on January 2, 2017 to question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on suspicions of receiving illicit benefits. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Mandelblit, according to the statement, decided to move from a probe to a full-blown criminal investigation “after he was presented with the opinion of the state attorney and the head of the police investigations and intelligence unit that the probe had found sufficient evidence justifying investigating the prime minister under caution,” the statement read.

Mandelblit did not provide any further details of the suspicions against the prime minister in the current investigation. According to police, Netanyahu is suspected of accepting valuable gifts from two businessmen during his time in office. Police have refused to comment on reports that one of the two is World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder, who is among 50 witnesses said to have testified in the probe. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

In the statement, the attorney general said that “naturally at this stage we can’t discuss the issues. Releasing further information will be considered from time-to-time depending on developments and as long as it does not jeopardize police procedures.”

However, the lengthy statement detailed four cases of suspected wrongdoing that are not included in the investigation because of a lack of evidence. They included allegations of illicit campaign finance during the 2009 election, forging results of the Likud primaries in that year, and receiving double payments for flights to speaking engagements abroad — the so-called “Bibitours” affair.

The statement came after a short communique from Israel Police saying only that Netanyahu was “questioned under caution on suspicion that he accepted (improper) benefits.”

In late September, 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.”

Haaretz reported on Monday that Lauder confirmed to police that he gave Netanyahu a suit, and paid for accommodation overseas for Yair Netanyahu; police have not confirmed this.

It is unclear if and how the current investigation is linked to a number of cases involving reported financial impropriety by Netanyahu and his family.

In June, he acknowledged receiving money from French tycoon Arnaud Mimran, who was sentenced to eight years in jail over a $315-million scam involving the trade of carbon emissions permits and the taxes on them.

In May, Israel’s state comptroller released a critical report about Netanyahu’s foreign trips, some with his wife and children, between 2003 and 2005 when he was finance minister.

And there have been allegations the couple spent public funds on garden furniture and electrical repairs at their private villa in the coastal resort town of Caesarea.

A former staffer has accused Sara Netanyahu of pocketing cash from deposit refunds for empty bottles returned from the official residence between 2009 and 2013, money that should have gone to the treasury.

In 2013, Netanyahu reimbursed the state $1,000 but the staffer has said the figure should have been six times higher.

In September, Mandelblit has said he would approve a criminal probe of Netanyahu if “reasonable” grounds were found to suspect malfeasance, countering concerns by some critics that the two men were too close for Mandelblit to act objectively.

Mandelblit was appointed attorney general in February after serving for three years as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary.

AFP and AP contributed to this report.

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