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Israeli Police Want Netanyahu, Wife Indicted Over Handling of State Gifts

March 29, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Wrapping up a seven-month fraud investigation, Israeli police recommended Tuesday that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, be indicted on criminal charges.

The case has become emblematic of a raft of shocking corruption inquiries involving the top echelons of Israeli government and business, including the president, the ruling party and the publisher of a leading newspaper.

State prosecutors now must decide whether to act on the police recommendation and try the Netanyahus. The former prime minister, who lost reelection in May, could face bribery, theft and obstruction of justice charges, while Sara Netanyahu could face charges of theft and attempted fraud.

Netanyahu on Tuesday categorically denied wrongdoing. Two senior aides also face charges.

The charges stem from allegations that the Netanyahus illegally kept 700 state gifts amassed while he was in office and said to be worth $100,000. Among the gifts were silverware, menorahs, carpets, paintings and, according to Israeli TV, a gold letter opener from U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

The former head of the right-wing Likud Party is also suspected of misusing state funds. Police say Netanyahu received more than $100,000 worth of services from a private building contractor who did the work for free in anticipation of political favors but who later tried to bill the state.

Netanyahu went on television Tuesday night to accuse politically motivated police, in league with left-leaning media, of badgering his family over baseless charges.

"Any innocent man who is investigated feels chased and persecuted," he told a television interviewer, showing flashes of the old feisty nature that electrified his political career. "But my case goes beyond that. My wife and I are being hunted."

Netanyahu has been in this predicament before. In 1997, during his first year in office, police recommended that he be indicted on corruption charges in an influence-peddling scandal. He was accused of appointing an attorney general who would reduce criminal charges against a Netanyahu political ally. But state prosecutors ruled that there was insufficient evidence to go to trial.

In the current investigation, police questioned 100 people and the implicated private contractor turned state's evidence.

Under Israeli law, official gifts presented to an elected leader belong to the state and must be relinquished when the leader leaves office. Instead, police said Tuesday, the Netanyahus removed inscriptions and concealed the presents within their personal belongings.

When news of the investigation broke last fall, television cameras were on hand to show police inspectors raiding the Netanyahu home and removing box after box of possessions from the location and a separate warehouse.

At the time, Netanyahu said he had intended to turn in the gifts once he had taken stock.

The police action against the Netanyahus came one day after the launching of an unrelated criminal investigation of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the powerful spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement, the third-largest party in parliament. The coincidence fed cries of foul.

"I have no doubt that what we have here is political persecution of the right and the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] in Israel," declared David Azoulai, a Shas legislator.

But Elyakim Rubinstein, the attorney general, said criminal probes these days are equal opportunity.

"We should simply get used to the fact that no one has immunity from police investigations anymore," Rubinstein said.

Since his staggering electoral loss to Ehud Barak, Netanyahu has left politics and hit the speaker's circuit. His resurrection as Likud leader is suggested from time to time, especially as the party seems to drift rudderless in opposition.

It was not clear how a criminal indictment would figure into his political plans. On the surface, a trial would seem damning. But many Israelis admire the underdog fighting the system, an image that Netanyahu has skillfully exploited in the past.

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