JERUSALEM — In a new twist to the corruption scandals dogging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the embattled Israeli leader was forced to deny Tuesday that one of his top aides had attempted to bribe a judge in exchange for closing an investigation of his wife.
The allegation, first reported by veteran journalist Ben Caspit and widely picked up in the Israeli press, was partially confirmed by a police statement, though it did not name the prime minister or his aide directly.
The allegation centers on an investigation of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, who is suspected of misusing funds at the couple’s official residence. She has been accused of dipping into government coffers to pay for private chefs, a caregiver for her father and the hiring of an electrician for unnecessary weekend work, allegations she denies. Israel’s attorney general announced in September that an indictment was likely , although charges have yet to be filed against her.
Caspit alleged in his report in the centrist Maariv newspaper on Tuesday that Nir Hefetz, a longtime media adviser to Netanyahu and his family, urged an associate of Judge Hila Gerstel to meet with her and offer her the position of attorney general if she agreed to close the investigation of Sara Netanyahu. Caspit wrote that the incident occurred during a race for the top law enforcement post at the end of 2015.
A statement released on behalf of the Netanyahu family said Hefetz never made the “hallucinatory proposal.”
“He was never asked to make such a proposal, and we do not believe that Hefetz even raised such a thing,” it said. Another statement called Caspit’s report slanderous and said the journalist, who recently published a book on Netanyahu, has an “absurd obsession with the prime minister’s wife.”
Hefetz also denied Caspit’s claims, saying that such a conversation never happened, Israeli media reported.
In a statement Tuesday, Israeli police confirmed the existence of an investigation “connected to suspicions that took place in 2015 when a senior public member was approached to assist in advancing her position to the position of Attorney General (diverting the selection process for that specific candidate) in exchange for a future promise/agreement regarding a case.”
Police recommended last week that Netanyahu be indicted in two corruption cases, ramping up pressure on the prime minister, who has held the office for more than a decade.
Case 1000, the first of two cases against him, is based on allegations that the prime minister received gifts worth $280,000 from billionaires in exchange for political favors. The second, Case 2000, involves claims that he tried to cut a deal with a newspaper publisher in return for favorable coverage.
The prime minister has denied all the charges and called the cases politically motivated, accusing his rivals of attempting to mount a coup. But the stream of allegations shows no sign of abating.
In addition, Case 3000, which relates to alleged corruption surrounding the purchase of naval vessels and submarines from a German shipbuilder, has been circling closer to Netanyahu. Police have not named him as a suspect but have questioned his close associates regarding the matter.
In a fourth probe, Case 4000, investigators are looking into whether the prime minister enacted policies that would financially benefit his friend Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications company Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Hefetz, who served as the prime minister’s media adviser from 2014 to 2017, is under arrest over his alleged involvement in that case.
In Tuesday’s edition of Maariv, Caspit reported that police received information that Hefetz met with Eli Kamir, an associate of Gerstel.
“According to information received by the police, Nir Hefetz held an urgent meeting with Eli Kamir, one of Justice Gerstel’s associates. She was considered a leading candidate for the position of attorney general,” he wrote.
“If you meet with Justice Gerstel in a closed room and ask her to close the investigation against Sara Netanyahu in exchange for her appointment as attorney general, what would her response be?” Caspit reported that Hefetz said to Kamir.
Caspit said Kamir was shocked and told Hefetz that he doubted the judge would even consider such a proposal but that Hefetz asked him to convey the message anyway. Kamir did so, and as he predicted, the judge was shocked by the suggestion, the report said.
“The keys in this affair are in the hands of Nir Hefetz,” Caspit told The Washington Post. “He can either say it was a joke or that he did not mean it, or he can say that someone sent him, although I don’t believe Netanyahu would do that — he is far too smart — but perhaps someone in his circle?”
Despite the police recommendation that he be indicted, Netanyahu has vowed to fight on. In a televised speech a week ago, he said he would continue to lead the country “with responsibility, dedication and loyalty.”
Netanyahu pointed out that only half of police recommendations result in indictments.
“I’m sure that the truth will come to light, and I’m sure that also in the next elections I will once again win your loyalty,” he said. Netanyahu’s coalition partners and members of his right-wing Likud faction have, so far, rallied around him.
Loveday Morris contributed to this report.