Shas head Deri to face criminal probe into graft allegations

Interior minister, who previously served jail time for corruption, to have real estate holdings examined, says he will fully comply with authorities

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Aryeh Deri gives a statement to the media during a conference at the Ramada hotel in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Aryeh Deri gives a statement to the media during a conference at the Ramada hotel in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday that a criminal investigation will be opened against Interior Minister Aryeh Deri for suspected corruption, after fresh fraud allegations were leveled against the Shas leader on Monday.

The probe apparently centers around unreported real estate property owned by Deri and members of his family, including a vacation home in northern Israel and apartments owned by each of his nine children.

Deri, for his part, responded to the attorney general’s announcement, saying he would comply with the investigation and that the probe would prove his innocence.

“The minister said from the beginning of the publication of the probe that he is ready to answer any question,” a spokesperson for Deri said in a statement. “The minister will cooperate with law enforcement agencies and is convinced that his answers will clarify that he acted cleanly.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri's vacation home in northern Israel (screen capture: Channel 2)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s vacation home in northern Israel (screen capture: Channel 2)

Deri, who previously served a prison sentence for graft — also while serving as interior minister — identified himself as one of two senior lawmakers under investigation for corruption after Channel 2 aired a report on the probe Tuesday evening.

He called then for a swift probe so he could be cleared of any suspicions.

On Wednesday, the attorney general officially approved a preliminary probe into Deri and the other lawmaker, who at the time was still unnamed. He has since been identified as Zionist Union chair and head of the opposition, Isaac Herzog.

Deri served 22 months in prison from 2000 to 2002 after he was convicted of taking bribes while serving as interior minister, and returned to politics earlier this decade to lead the ultra-Orthodox party in the Knesset.

He reclaimed the leadership of his Shas party shortly before last year’s Knesset elections, replacing Eli Yishai. The Shas lawmaker returned to his Interior Ministry post earlier this year after a court ruled his prior conviction did not disqualify him from the post.

Aryeh Deri, left, whispering to Isaac Herzog at a party in Jerusalem on December 23, 2015. (Yaacov Cohen/FLASH90)
Aryeh Deri, left, whispering to Isaac Herzog at a party in Jerusalem on December 23, 2015. (Yaacov Cohen/FLASH90)

Earlier in the day, Deri, who ran on a campaign of representing the everyman, sought to downplay allegations about his real estate holdings.

“Yesterday I found out that my wife and I have become real estate moguls,” he said sarcastically, according to Channel 2. “We have had an apartment for about 25 years, in which we raised nine children and for which we are still paying the mortgage. In addition, we have a vacation home in Safsufa for the extended family, including the grandchildren.”

Also on Wednesday, Isaac Herzog, who heads the Zionist Union list that is an amalgamation of the Labor and Hatnuah parties, was named as the previously unidentified second senior Israeli lawmaker under investigation for graft.

The suspicion against Herzog hinges on direct payments made by donors to members of his leadership campaign, Channel 10 said. The report also said that police have acquired invoices that show Herzog knew of the illicit transactions.

Herzog was quick to respond as news broke of the probe against him, welcoming the investigation, but dismissing the accusations as the product of “delusional political muckraking” promoted by the rival 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.”

This isn’t the first time the Zionist Union chairman 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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