Police minister rejects claim Netanyahu probes ‘politically motivated’

Gilad Erdan defends law enforcement officials investigating PM, but expresses unease over state’s witnesses being let off scot-free

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, November 14, 2017. (Flash90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, November 14, 2017. (Flash90)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Wednesday rejected accusations voiced recently by many in his ruling Likud party that there are “political motives” driving the ballooning police investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The investigations “aren’t done out of political or other extraneous motives,” Erdan, whose ministry oversees the police, told Israel Radio. He was rebuffing frequent claims by senior Likud figures, including coalition whip David Amsalem and Netanyahu himself, who last month accused police of “bias” against him.

“I have said many times that I back Police Commissioner [Roni Alsheich] and I reject the accusations that there are extraneous political motives driving the investigations,” he said.

Last month, after police recommended indicting Netanyahu in two corruption investigations known as Case 1000 and Case 2000, Amsalem said in a statement that “the target was marked two years ago. [Police] have fired dozens of arrows toward it in the hope that one of them will hit it, and after they have turned over every stone, in every corner of the world, the police did everything in order to reach their goal.

Police Chief Roni Alsheich (L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a welcoming ceremony held in Alsheich’s honor at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“In a democratic country, the government must be overturned [only] at the ballot box and not by the army or the police,” the vocal Netanyahu loyalist added.

Another Likud member, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, described the police recommendations as “a contemptible move to stage a government coup against the will of the voter.”

In his interview, Erdan also referred to a dramatic development this week that saw Nir Hefetz, a former longtime media adviser to the Netanyahu family, turn state’s witness against the prime minister in the Bezeq case, in which the prime minister is suspected of illicitly advancing policy that benefited a media tycoon.

Hefetz joined the suspended Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber and former Netanyahu adviser Ari Harow, who have both similarly signed agreements with the state to testify against the prime minister in the probes in exchange for more lenient punishments.

“I’m sometimes uneasy over state’s witnesses not receiving punishments,” Erdan said Wednesday. “They are criminals too, they didn’t act for moral reasons and I think it’s wrong to completely exempt them from punishment.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former spokesman Nir Hefetz (foreground) and Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch attend a remand hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, February 26, 2018 Flash90)

One probe, the Bezeq corruption investigation, dubbed Case 4000, involves suspicions that Shaul Elovitch, the majority shareholder in the Bezeq telecommunications giant, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahu family in exchange for the prime minister, who was also communications minister at the time, advancing regulations benefiting him.

On Friday, the prime minister and his wife, Sara, were questioned for the first time in the case. After the five-hour interrogations, investigation officials reportedly said that Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to explain away the “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against him.

Last month, police recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of serious corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other cases.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer in return for certain benefits.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in any of the cases.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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