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Israeli police question Netanyahu and his wife in far-reaching bribery scandal

Israeli police question Netanyahu and his wife in far-reaching bribery scandal
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu in 2014. (Oded Balilty / Associated Press)

Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for five hours Friday in a far-reaching bribery scandal in which he and his wife are suspected of offering handsome regulatory and financial benefits to a telecom giant in exchange for positive news coverage.

The interrogation marked the eighth time Netanyahu has been questioned in connection with three separate corruption cases and occured on the eve of the prime minister's visit to Washington, D.C., where he is scheduled to meet with President Trump. Netanyahu has been under increasing criticism in Israel as the cases have unfolded.

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Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife, was also questioned in the case in a simultaneous but separate interrogation conducted at police headquarters. Netanyahu was questioned at his official residence in Jerusalem.

Police already have recommended that the prime minister be indicted in connection with two other corruption cases involving alleged bribery and favor-trading, but Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit has yet to respond to that recommendation. The attorney general did, however, authorize police to conduct parallel interrogations to prevent Netanyahu and his wife from potentially coordinating their accounts.

In one of the earlier bribery cases, allegedly involving gifts of wine and cigars from various businessmen, Netanyahu and his wife were questioned days apart, for which Mandelblit was severely criticized.

The Netanyahus claim the lavish gifts were acts of generosity from two wealthy friends — Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

Another centers around Netanyahu's alleged efforts to gain positive news coverage in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's leading daily.

Authorities said Netanyahu was caught on tape offering the paper's publisher, Arnon Mozes, a deal through which he would suppress Yediot's main competitor — the free daily Israel Hayom, owned by Netanyahu backer and Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson — in exchange for favorable press coverage. Yediot is generally critical of the government.

Netanyahu has not been named as a suspect in a fourth unfolding corruption case, involving the allegedly improper procurement of submarines for Israel's navy, but several of his closest associates have been arrested in the investigation.

During Friday's interrogation, Netanyahu and his wife were questioned as potential criminal suspects in the case involving telecommunications giant Bezeq, a case far more expansive than the others. Netanyahu, who served as minister of communications until last year in addition to his duties as prime minister, is alleged to have asked Shaul Elovitch, who owns Bezeq, to guarantee the Netanyahus positive news coverage in exchange for regulatory favors for Bezeq.

Elovitch, his wife and their adult son have been arrested in connection with the case.

In what has become an expected Netanyahu ritual, the prime minister posted a video on his Facebook page professing his innocence in the latest case.

"I want to let you know, I feel confident, because there won't be anything, and I want to say one more thing to the millions of Israeli citizens who express such strong support for me, for my spouse and for my family, you warm our hearts, thank you," the prime minister said in the video.

He said he will be meeting with Trump — "a great friend, a true friend of the State of Israel" — congressional leaders and lobbyists in what he twice described as "a very important trip."

Netanyahu and Trump are expected to discuss the expanding Iranian military presence in Syria, which borders on Israel's north. The Israeli government feels increasingly isolated as it faces the growing threat of a proxy war with Iran's Lebanon-based ally, Hezbollah, a major force fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Channel 10 news reported that Israel believes "it is convenient for them [the Americans] to let us be their contractor in Syria." For the United States, Israel believes, defeating the Islamic State in Syria is "more urgent" than stopping Iran in Syria.

Netanyahu's relations with Jews in the U.S. remain poor following the abrupt decision by the government last year to cancel the Western Wall deal, a compromise with Israel's ultra-Orthodox political parties that would have allowed the liberal Jewish movements that represent the majority of American Jews an egalitarian place of their own for prayer at the holy site.

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Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.

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