Opposition leader Isaac Herzog named as suspect in corruption probe

Suspicions against Zionist Union chairman pertain to funding irregularities during 2013 Labor Party primaries

Isaac Herzog at the 2016 AIPAC Conference on Monday, March 21, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)
Isaac Herzog at the 2016 AIPAC Conference on Monday, March 21, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog was named Wednesday as the previously unidentified second senior Israeli lawmaker suspected of graft, a day after Interior Minister Aryeh Deri revealed he was again the center of a major corruption investigation.

The suspicions against Herzog, who chairs the Zionist Union list, are related to funding irregularities during the 2013 Labor Party primaries, Channel 2 reported.

Earlier Wednesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit officially approved launching a preliminary investigation into Deri and the then-unnamed Herzog.

Herzog was quick to respond to news of the probe against him, dismissing it as the product of “delusional political muckraking” promoted by the Likud party and “frustrated activists” before last year’s Knesset elections.

“I’m sure the examination [of the allegations] will refute these delusional claims once and for all,” he said in a statement, promising to “cooperate fully” with any party so that “the issue is clarified as soon as possible.”

Although Herzog has a relatively positive reputation, this isn’t the first time he has faced suspicions relating to campaign funding.

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

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (L) talks to Shas party leader Aryeh Deri in the Knesset plenum on May 4, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (L) talks to Shas party leader Aryeh Deri in the Knesset plenum on May 4, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Deri, who previously served a prison sentence for graft while in the same ministerial post he holds now, identified himself as one of the two senior lawmakers under investigation, after Channel 2 aired a report on the matter Tuesday evening.

The Shas party leader vowed to fully cooperate with police and continue serving in the Knesset.

“I am at the disposal of any investigative authority at any minute of every hour to answer when needed,” he told reporters Wednesday morning.

“I’m prepared to answer, help and let them do their job. I only hope the process will be sped up so that I can go back to my job,” Deri said.

“Meanwhile I’m continuing my work as usual,” he added.

Both Herzog and Deri were accused of committing the alleged crimes by members of their respective parties. The accusations against Herzog surfaced less than month ago, according to Channel 2.

Sources close to investigation said it would be “unavoidable” that Deri be questioned under caution, Channel 2 reported.

Deri served 22 months in prison from 2000 to 2002 for taking bribes while serving as interior minister, and returned to politics in 2011, before resuming leadership of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party shortly before the 2015 Knesset elections.

He returned to head the Interior Ministry earlier this year, after a court ruled his prior conviction did not disqualify him from the post.

The case could have dramatic repercussions for Deri, as well as for his party’s place in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow ruling coalition.

Tuesday’s report sparked harsh criticism from an opposition Knesset member who called him “corrupt” and unfit for public service.

“Aryeh Deri should never have been allowed to return to serve as a minister after his graft conviction,” Zionist Union’s Miki Rosenthal said. “I said this even before the latest allegations were made public: He is corrupt, has abused the trust of the people, has lined his pockets with public funds and is unworthy of serving the public ever.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, January 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, January 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

Rosenthal said the initial police investigation into political wrongdoing was insufficient, and said the matter should be investigated as a criminal offense.

Investigations into both lawmakers are in a preliminary stage, and neither has been questioned by police.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told Army Radio she was surprised to learn of the allegations against Deri, but urged the public to refrain from passing judgment until the police investigation is complete.

“I found out about it from the media like everyone else,” she said. “Its very easy to discredit a person’s name, which is why the investigation is so important.”

In an earlier interview with Army Radio, former Shas MK Nissim Zeev defended Deri, saying he was “confident” he would ultimately be found innocent of wrongdoing.

“When Deri returned to the party, it was out of the belief that he was exonerated from his past offenses and was an effort to turn a new page,” he said.

Shas party spokesman Barak Seri on Wednesday morning said Deri was willing to be questioned “at any time by any law enforcement authority.”

“He has been going over everything, he knows that he is under a magnifying glass,” Seri told Army Radio.

Elad Shraga, the head of the Movement for Quality Government who in January unsuccessfully challenged Deri’s reappointment in a petition to the High Court, told the radio station the NGO would demand the attorney general update justices on the progress of the case so the petition could be revisited in the future.

Deri’s wife Yaffa Deri, though, tried to put the investigation into a positive historical light.

“We survived Pharaoh, we survived Haman,” she said, referring to biblical villains recalled in the Jewish spring holidays of Purim and Passover. “We find ourselves in an excellent month.”

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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