JERUSALEM — Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for five hours Friday over what news reports said was his possible role in a far-reaching bribery scandal allegedly involving the granting of regulatory benefits worth millions of dollars to Israeli telecom giant Bezeq.
It is the first time that Netanyahu has been investigated in connection with the case, which is said to involve a quid pro quo arrangement of positive news coverage for the Netanyahu family on the popular Walla news website, owned by Bezeq’s majority shareholder, Shaul Elovitch.
The questioning came shortly before Netanyahu was scheduled to depart for the United States, where he is expected to visit President Trump at the White House on Monday.
This is the third and possibly most serious corruption case so far involving Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The prime minister is involved in the case because he also was serving as communications minister at the time the benefits were said to have been granted. Police said that Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, also was questioned in the case.
Sara Netanyahu was expected to give a statement about her ties with Elovitch’s wife, Iris, and the messages that she is suspected of having relayed to her about Bezeq and coverage of the Netanyahus on the Walla website, Israel radio reported.
A statement issued on behalf of the prime minister said that none of this ever took place, and that the allegations are a continuation of “tendentious” and “false” leaks against Sara Netanyahu aimed at undermining the prime minister and his government.
Elovitch, his wife and son, and Netanyahu’s former media adviser Nir Hefetz have all spent time in jail over the past week for their alleged roles in the affair, which police refer to as Case 4000. The investigation into the case was ramped up in recent weeks when Shlomo Filber, the Communications Ministry’s former director general, turned state’s witness.
Under official protocol, the interview with the prime minister took place at his residence in Jerusalem, while Sara Netanyahu’s occurred at the police investigative headquarters.
A few hours after police left his residence, a tired-looking Benjamin Netanyahu published a Facebook video reassuring the public, once again, that the investigations against him will yield nothing.
Two weeks ago, the police submitted recommendations that the prime minister be indicted in connection with two other cases, also relating to bribes, fraud and breach of trust. It is now up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to decide whether to indict Netanyahu in those cases, dubbed Case 1000 and Case 2000.
According to the police recommendation, Case 1000 involves gifts of cigars and jewelry that the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving from billionaire benefactors such as Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian business executive James Packer.
Case 2000, said police, involved deals made between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. According to information leaked to the Israeli media, the agreement apparently would have allowed the prime minister to receive more favorable coverage from the newspaper if he agreed to weaken the status of rival daily newspaper Israel Hayom, owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
In Case 3000, which may be even more explosive, several members of Netanyahu’s inner circle have been named as suspects, questioned or arrested in what is said to be a corrupt multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Germany. So far, Netanyahu has not been directly linked to that case.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all of the cases and said that the police recommendations will not amount to anything.
Despite the allegations surrounding Netanyahu, his political position appears as strong as ever, and members of his right-wing coalition say they have no intention of dismantling the government unless the attorney general decides to pursue an indictment against him.
In a radio interview Friday, Knesset member Yakov Margi, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said the coalition should be preserved at all costs. It is a sentiment echoed throughout the government.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of the ultranationalist party Jewish Home, said that according to the law, Netanyahu can stay in the job through the end of his trial. But, she said, coalition members are likely to reconsider their current positions based on the decisions of the attorney general.