Herzog on graft probe: I’m calm, everyone needs to calm down

After 5-hour interrogation, opposition leader says suspicions of contribution irregularities timed to emerge ahead of primaries

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on April 12, 2016 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on April 12, 2016 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on Sunday maintained he was “calm,” after police questioned him for five hours under caution over suspicions that he received unlawful financial contributions during his successful 2013 campaign for the Labor Party leadership.

“Believe me I’m calm, and you should be calm, and if there’s someone in the party who is not calm — they should calm down,” Herzog said at a Histadrut event.

“It’s not easy, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he added.

The opposition leader vowed to bring his Zionist Union faction to victory in the next general election, and indicated the allegations were surfacing to discredit him ahead of the primaries in Labor, the larger of the two parties comprising the Zionist Union.

“And you know it’s no secret that every time there are general or internal elections, all sorts of bizarre claims emerge and it’s good that these things are being examined, just as they were examined for previous opposition leaders who were questioned by police,” he said.

Herzog urged political unity and pledged to bring the faction to victory in the next election.

“We were on the cusp of victory, and in the next elections, I will win, and you will win, and the party will win, and the Zionist Union will win,” he said.

Herzog, whose interrogation was approved by the attorney general, is also suspected of failing to report a donation and making a false statement. An interrogation session under caution is often a precursor to the opening of a criminal investigation.

Earlier Sunday, Herzog said that he was relieved to have the opportunity to give police his side of the story.

“From the moment that the existence of a probe was leaked… I requested permission to respond so that I could put the matter behind me. I have complete faith in the law enforcement officials and I thank them for their respectful and fair treatment,” he said in a statement.

In response to the interrogtion, fellow faction member Shelly Yachimovich vaguely called for the Zionist Union to discuss “future steps,” while Meretz leader Zehava Galon urged Herzog to resign.

“I am convinced Herzog has in mind the best interests of the party and the opposition, and I will work alongside him and the members of our faction to decide on the steps to take,” Yachimovich said. “There is no doubt that the faction chairman and opposition leader being questioned under warning exacerbates the situation. I have complete trust in the police and law enforcement authorities.”

Galon, meanwhile, maintained Herzog should not remain in his position.

“Herzog cannot continue in the role of chairman of the opposition,” Galon said, according to Channel 2. “Perhaps he needs to suspend himself.”

Herzog said last week that he would cooperate with a police investigation so as to put the suspicions to rest “as soon as possible.”

At the end of last month, Herzog was named as a second senior Israeli Knesset member suspected of graft. The news came shortly after Interior Minister Aryeh Deri — who has spent several years in prison for embezzlement — revealed he was again at the center of a major corruption investigation.

Police were seeking permission from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate Herzog, Channel 2 reported last week, also revealing that Herzog’s former campaign manager, Shimon Batat, has already been interviewed under caution in connection with suspected campaign financing violations.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 05, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem, July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool)

So far, Mandelblit has ordered a preliminary probe of suspicions that focus on the 2013 Labor Party primaries, in which Herzog beat incumbent Yachimovich for the leadership.

Concerns center on funding connected to a nonprofit organization used by Herzog supporters to manage a negative campaign against Yachimovich, Channel 2 reported, adding that testimony has already been collected from individuals, among them known figures from the political world.

Among other things, the case involves the director general of a nursing agency who allegedly invested tens of thousands of shekels over and above the official campaign budget to fund the negative campaign.

Zionist Union lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich at the Knesset on June 8, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich at the Knesset on June 8, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

To date, the only person convicted and sentenced to a jail term for internal party funding offenses has been former lawmaker Omri Sharon, son of the late prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Former MK Naomi Blumenthal (Likud) was convicted of bribing 15 party activists and central committee members during Likud primaries in December 2003 by inviting them to a Ramat Gan hotel.

In a June 2014 report, former state comptroller Yosef Shapira determined that Herzog had exceeded the limit on expenses allowed in the Labor Party leadership primaries against Yachimovich, but that he had not broken the law. Accepting Herzog’s explanation that an “innocent accounting mistake” had been made, Shapira decided against any financial sanction against him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on January 31, 2016. Photo by Amit Shabi/POOL
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on January 31, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said talks about bringing Zionist Union into the governing coalition stalled when the suspicions concerning Herzog came to light.

In 1999, Herzog exercised his right to remain silent when he was cabinet secretary, in connection with alleged campaign funding irregularities on the part of then-prime minister Ehud Barak.

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