Fifth graft probe hits Netanyahu, inner circle as police chief fires back at PM

For the second time this week, Israeli police have announced a new corruption investigation targeting members of Prim...

Posted: Feb 21, 2018 3:34 AM
Updated: Feb 21, 2018 3:34 AM

For the second time this week, Israeli police have announced a new corruption investigation targeting members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner circle, marking the fifth such investigation to entangle the premier and those closest to him.

Netanyahu slammed the latest investigation, in which a member of his inner circle has been arrested, while denying any involvement in the case. It comes less than a week after police said they had enough evidence to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in two corruption cases and hours after members of his inner circle were arrested.

On Tuesday morning, police revealed details of the fifth investigation, saying that two people had been arrested on suspicion of corruption.

In a statement about the case, police said the suspects approached a "senior public member" in late 2015 and offered to help make that person attorney general in exchange for a "future agreement regarding a case."

Although police didn't identify the suspects, Netanyahu named one of the two as Nir Hefetz, his former family spokesperson.

In a response to reports about the investigation, Netanyahu said, "Nir Hefetz never suggested this absurd idea to the Prime Minister and his wife, [and] he never asked them to put forward an idea like this, and we don't believe that Hefetz even had such an idea."

A lawyer for Hefetz denied all the allegations against him.

Israeli daily newspaper Maariv reported that Hefetz approached a high-ranking judge and offered to advance their candidacy for attorney general in exchange for dropping a case against Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the Prime Minister.

Police said the offer did not succeed. As part of the investigation, police say the "senior public member" -- believed to be the judge -- gave testimony about the events.

Hefetz was arrested in a separate case revealed one day earlier, known locally as Case 4000, on suspicion of bribery and obstruction of justice. That case marked the fourth to entangle the Prime Minister or members of his inner circle. Less than 24 hours later, police announced a fifth.

Proclaiming his innocence, Netanyahu said in a statement, "Soon they will blame the Netanyahus for the murder of Arlosoroff," referring to the assassination of Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff.

In court documents, Hefetz's lawyer denied any wrongdoing in the previous case.

Meanwhile, Israeli police chief Roni Alsheich hit back at Netanyahu on Tuesday in a veiled jab at the Israeli leader, saying, "During criminal proceedings, [suspects] try to create doubt as to the credibility of the police officer's testimony and his professionalism."

Alsheich, speaking about public trust at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday, said, "The world of professional criminals has always had an interest in damaging the public trust by promoting and maintaining a negative image of the police."

In recent weeks, Alsheich has come under attack from Netanyahu, who has accused the investigation of harboring conspiracy theories driven by media pressure. In a Facebook post earlier his month, he said police investigators believe "ludicrous thoughts," and that they can no longer work in an "objective manner."

The attacks have increased following a police statement last week that they have enough evidence to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges in two separate investigations. Netanyahu has said "a shadow has fallen under the police investigation," and insisted the police cases have "holes like Swiss cheese."

Alsheich appeared to take issue with Netanyahu's increasing attacks coming on social media. "In the age of internet, the opportunities are endless. The ability to transmit information is infinite. Every action which can be presented as a mistake by police officers becomes the potential for a media campaign against the police," Alsheich said.

Defending the work of police investigators, Alsheich added, "We don't want to be on the left side, on the right side. We want to be on the side of the law."

Netanyahu still has the support of key coalition partners, who have said they will wait for the Attorney General to make a decision about whether or not to indict the Prime Minister, which could take months. One key partner, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, did say that Netanyahu was not acting up to the standards of his office.

Israeli opposition MK Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party and one of Netanyahu's chief rivals, called on Netanyahu to "step aside."

Speaking at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Monday, Lapid said, "He needs to step aside until this is resolved, he doesn't even need to resign, they can put in someone else from Likud as has been done before. It's an incredibly difficult job, maybe the second hardest in the world, and we need a Prime Minister who is focused on this. In a democracy, the way to change the government is in the polls but I don't think he can give the country the attention it needs."

"Everyone understands there is a problem running the country because the PM is so pre-occupied with his own problems," Lapid added.

Lapid, a witness in one of the cases against Netanyahu, served as Finance Minister when investigators said Netanyahu tried to advance a bill that would have provided tax benefits to a friend.

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