Israeli police seek charges against Netanyahu and wife

Ex-prime minister denies corruption, denounces probe

March 29, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Completing a seven-month investigation, Israeli police recommended yesterday that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, be tried on corruption charges.

A conviction could doom any chance of a political comeback for the one-time star of the right-wing Likud bloc, who left public life after soundly losing his bid for re-election last year to Ehud Barak.

Police urged that the former prime minister be formally charged with taking a bribe, fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice. The last charge is the most serious and could bring a seven-year prison term.

Sara Netanyahu could face charges of theft and attempted fraud in connection with the removal of official gifts from the prime minister's official residence.

Going on the offensive using his favorite medium, Netanyahu, 50, gave a nearly hourlong television interview last night in which he angrily denounced the police probe as "ridiculous."

"All the accusations are completely unfounded," he said. "They [the investigators] are hunting me and my wife as though we were human animals."

The case stemmed from work performed for the Netanyahus at their private home and at the prime minister's residence by contractor Avner Amedi, whose jobs at the residence bypassed the official bidding process.

Police said Amedi hadn't billed the couple over the years that he worked for them but had been promised compensation by Benjamin Netanyahu. Amedi also asked Benjamin Netanyahu for favors and he sometimes complied, police alleged, without giving specific details.

After promises of payment were not met, police said, Amedi submitted a $110,000 bill to the prime minister's office after Benjamin Netanyahu was out of office. Sara Netanyahu pressured the government to pay the bill, police said.

Police also said that 700 official gifts had been illegally removed by the Netanyahus when they left the residence. The gifts, worth $100,000, were classified as government property. They included a gold letter opener from Vice President Al Gore.

During a police search, some of the gifts were found in use at the Netanyahus' home, police said. Others were found at a government warehouse; some could not be located.

Police said it appeared that efforts were made to conceal the source of the gifts. No one had been told of their whereabouts, and there were signs that identifying stickers had been scratched off, police said.

In his television interview, the former prime minister displayed a carton marked "candlesticks," asking why it would be labeled if he and his wife intended to hide the contents and keep them. He also showed a broach, supposedly valuable, that he said had been appraised at $1.

He said his departure from the prime minister's residence was so rushed that there wasn't time to do anything other than place the gifts in storage temporarily.

Describing the personal toll of the investigation, he said his son had been taunted by schoolmates who called his parents thieves.

A formal charge against the couple is not automatic despite the police recommendation, even though a member of the prosecution staff was assigned to the probe and may have closely supervised it.

The decision will be made by State Attorney Edna Arbel after consulting with Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein.

"The question is still open," said Asher Moaz, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, who noted that prosecutors have a poor record of winning convictions against public figures in Israel.

In 1997, prosecutors turned down a police recommendation that Benjamin Netanyahu be charged for allegedly trying to influence the outcome of a corruption probe of the leader of one of the religious parties in his coalition government.

Yaacov Weinroth, Benjamin Netanyahu's lawyer, said that if charges are brought, "we will be itching for a trial."

"Once and for all the public will see how false accusations were thrown at Netanyahu," he said.

Yesterday's police announcement was the latest turn in a season of Israeli political scandals.

President Ezer Weizman remains under a cloud for receiving large sums of money from a friend while in office, and Barak and his Labor Party are being investigated for alleged campaign fund-raising offenses.

Meanwhile, a Cabinet minister has been accused of sexual harassment, and the Shas party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is being investigated for allegedly threatening the education minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu, elected in 1996 after a meteoric rise in politics, had a tumultuous term as prime minister. He angered the Clinton administration by appearing to vacillate and stall on the peace process and also lost the trust of many in the Israeli government.

But he remains a popular figure among supporters of Likud, which has no other leader with his knack for grabbing the limelight. Although he has been publicly silent about a return to politics, commentators have said he could be a leading candidate for prime minister in the next election.

Netanyahu, the son of a right-wing Zionist scholar, spent five years in the military, serving in an elite commando unit.

He entered public life by organizing seminars on terrorism after the death of his brother, Jonathan, who was killed in Entebbe, Uganda, while leading a commando raid to free hostages held by Palestinians in 1976.

He rose quickly as a diplomat, becoming Israel's representative to the United Nations and then deputy foreign minister. Later, he became a minister within the prime minister's office.

Combining good looks, an American accent and a cool and powerful television presence, he was one of Israel's most effective official spokesmen.

After Likud lost the 1992 elections, Netanyahu leapfrogged over veteran politicians to become its new leader.

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