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Police question Israeli FM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police questioned the new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, for more than seven hours on Thursday on suspicion of bribery and money laundering.

Lieberman, an ultranationalist who became Israel’s top diplomat on Tuesday, has denied any wrongdoing and has called the police probe into his affairs a smear campaign.

His anti-Arab rhetoric has alarmed Palestinians as well as Arab leaders in the region.

“Avigdor Lieberman was questioned under caution by police today for seven-and-a-half hours on suspicion of carrying out the following: bribery, money laundering and breach of trust,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

The questioning was part of a years-long investigation, details of which were not made available by the police.

Israeli media said Lieberman was suspected of receiving bribes through a consulting firm run by his daughter.

He has been questioned before, but not as foreign minister.

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Lieberman had asked Israeli courts to have the investigation expedited, arguing that it was unreasonable for a public figure to be subjected to allegations which cast a stain on his character.

“This is the same investigation that has been ongoing for the past 13 years and which he has petitioned the courts to have speeded up,” said a Lieberman spokeswoman.

“He cooperated fully with police investigators and answered all their questions and enjoyed drinking their coffee.”

The Foreign Ministry said Lieberman spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the day, their first call since he took office, to arrange a first meeting.

Soviet-born Lieberman campaigned for a February 10 Israeli election on a slogan “no loyalty, no citizenship,” seen as urging the deportation of Israeli Arab citizens charged with involvement with or advocating the actions of militants based in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

The election was triggered by a corruption scandal that forced Ehud Olmert, who was leader of the centrist Kadima party, to resign as prime minister, though he remained as caretaker until Tuesday, when rightist Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new premier, was sworn in.

Avigdor Lieberman attends a meeting in Jerusalem, February 11, 2009. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

While in office, Olmert was questioned repeatedly by the police, but so far no charges have been brought against him. He denies any wrongdoing.

Last month, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was indicted for rape and other sexual offences against three women who used to work for him, charges that he denies.

Lieberman’s policies towards Arabs, which some critics call racist, helped him win a wider electorate.

He says land where many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs live should be “swapped” for West Bank Jewish settlements in a peace deal with the Palestinians.

A former aide to Netanyahu, Lieberman founded his party Yisrael Beiteinu, which means “Our Home is Israel,” in 1999.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Richard Meares