Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem on Monday evening for nearly three hours on suspicion of corruption charges. Netanyahu is accused of receiving gifts from businessmen in breach of his role as a public servant.
Israeli media said the questioning by senior police investigators was expected last several hours and would almost certainly be followed by more interrogation.
The move was authorised by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who decided after a preliminary inquiry that there was enough evidence to open a criminal investigation.
Netanyahu has strongly denied all allegations against him. he told his ruling Likud faction in parliament that those hoping for his downfall would have to wait as nothing would come of the investigation.
The prime minister told his critics, “don’t celebrate yet”, hours before he was to be questioned.
“Nothing will come (of this investigation) and you will continue to spew out hot air,” Netanyahu had said mockingly.
Photographers were camped outside the heavily guarded residence, hoping to get pictures of investigators arriving. Black screens were erected inside the gates of the property to block the view.
Reports say the probe related to gifts worth “hundreds of thousands of shekels” ($1=3.85 shekels) given to Netanyahu by Israeli and foreign businessmen.
Israel police has interrogated witnesses abroad as well as in Israel about the graft case against Netanyahu and his family.
One witness whose deposition, as per media reports, led to a breakthrough was Jewish American businessman Ron Lauder, a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s.
Lauder confirmed to police that he had given Netanyahu various gifts, including a suit, and that he had also financed a trip abroad for the prime minister’s son, Yair.
The police believe the value of the gifts Lauder gave Netanyahu is greater than what he admitted to and that they were not given in friendship, but in hopes of gaining some benefit.
Netanyahu, 67, has been in power on and off since 1996. He is currently in his fourth term as prime minister and will become Israel’s longest-serving leader if he stays in office until the end of next year.
He and his wife, Sara, have weathered several scandals over the years, including investigations into the misuse of state funds and an audit of the family’s spending on everything.
Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to be questioned in a criminal case.
Ehud Olmert, who held office from 2006 to 2009, is currently serving 18 months in prison after being convicted of breach of trust and bribery in 2014
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was questioned while in office in 2003 and 2004 over allegations of bribery and corruption involving him and his two sons. In 2006, his son Omri was convicted of corruption and served time in prison.
(With inputs from agencies)