JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on Friday for the first time in a corruption case that involves the country’s largest telecommunications company, Israel Radio said.
Israeli police confirmed that an anti-corruption unit had questioned the couple for several hours each, but did not say whether the questioning was in connection with the case of Bezeq Israel Telecom.
The case is one of at least four investigations surrounding the four-term prime minister or his associates announced last month, which have put his political survival in jeopardy. In February police recommended that Netanyahu, 68, be indicted for bribery in two other corruption investigations. (For a graphic on investigations of Netanyahu, click tmsnrt.rs/2iE4zAN)
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a “witch-hunt.”
In the Bezeq case, known as Case 4000, authorities allege that the owners of the telecoms firm provided favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his wife on a news website they controlled in return for favors from regulators.
The company has denied wrongdoing. Police have yet to make a recommendation about charges in the case.
In a video message posted on his Facebook page about three hours after police left his residence, the prime minister said he was confidant nothing would come of the investigations.
Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to the United States on Saturday and to meet President Donald Trump on March 5.
Sara Netanyahu’s lawyer said her questioning took place at a police station near Tel Aviv, while the prime minister was questioned at his official residence in Jerusalem. The lawyer said Sara was questioned under police caution, indicating that she could become a suspect.
Police investigating the case have arrested the controlling shareholder of Bezeq Telecom, Shaul Elovitch, and Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu spokesman, who have both denied wrongdoing. Israeli media reported that they were both also being questioned on Friday.
A representative for Elovitch had no immediate comment and Hefetz’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Shlomo Filber, a confidant of Netanyahu and former director general of the Communications Ministry, has also been arrested in connection with the case. Israeli media have reported that he has agreed to turn state’s witness.
As reports of the police interviews emerged, protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s residence, demanding he step down.
“We want to see Netanyahu go to trial and, if needed, go to jail or go home. Let our people go free from all the corruption surrounding the government and the head of it,” said Shimrit Orr, 72, a writer, from Tel Aviv.
There were a few dozen protesters, singing songs and banging plastic pipes on garbage cans. Some cars beeped their horns in support as they drove by.
“A prime minister under investigation cannot, and may not, take crucial decisions,” said Shuki Cohen, 63, an economist from Moshav Arugot.
The right-wing prime minister has been Israel’s dominant political figure for a generation, in power since 2009 and for 12 years in total since 1996. He says that he has done nothing wrong, and has said that he will seek a fifth term in an election due in late 2019.
In the two other cases in which police have already recommended that Netanyahu be charged, the final decision about whether or not to prosecute rests with the Israeli attorney general. That decision could be weeks or months away.
In one of the investigations, known as Case 1000, he is suspected of bribery over gifts, which police say were worth nearly $300,000, from wealthy businessmen.
The other, Case 2000, involves an alleged plot to win positive coverage in Israel’s biggest newspaper by offering to take measures to curtail the circulation of a rival daily.
So far, partners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition have stood by him, saying they are awaiting the attorney-general’s next moves. Political analysts say such support could erode if the investigations against Netanyahu intensify.
Netanyahu could also call a snap election to try to stall legal proceedings during the campaign and rally his rightwing power base behind him. Recent polls show Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of other factions in the Knesset.
However, surveys also show that about half of Israelis believe the police over Netanyahu and think he should step down. A third think he should remain in office.
Additional reporting by Sinan Abu Maizer and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Stephen Farrell, Kevin Liffey and Peter Graff