UPDATE (January 3, 5:28 a.m.): This story has been updated to reflect that the questioning has taken place, and to include a response from Ronald Lauder’s attorney.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was questioned by police at his official residence Monday about gifts he received from an American billionaire and other foreign businessmen, Israeli media reported.
The questions focused on allegations that Netanyahu and his family unlawfully took gifts and other favors from business figures in Israel and abroad, in breach of his position as a public official.
Netanyahu, who has strenuously denied the allegations, reasserted his innocence Monday, advising his critics in the media to hold off their celebrations, the Jerusalem Post reported.
“There will be nothing, because there is nothing,” he said Monday at a meeting of his Likud Party, using his standard denial of any allegation against him. Some of Netanyahu’s supporters in Likud have claimed the investigation against him is politically motivated.
Police arrived for the interview at the prime minister’s official residence on Monday night, where a black veil had been put up to block the view of reporters, according to reports.
Israeli media outlets are reporting that the alleged gifts involved were worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. (100,000 Israeli shekels are worth about $26,000.)
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, one of the key witnesses is American billionaire businessman Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a longtime friend of Netanyahu, who confirmed to police that he had given the Israeli leader a suit and paid for an overseas trip for his eldest son. But the newspaper report said police suspect that gifts of a higher value were given.
Helena Beilin, an attorney for Lauder, said that during a trip to Israel for the funeral of former Israeli leader Shimon Peres in September, her client was asked to meet with Israeli police to respond to questions relating to an investigation, to which he was not a party. She said Lauder briefly spoke to police and was told there would be no need for further interviews.
Israeli media outlets are also reporting that police hope that the questioning of Netanyahu will shed light on a second, more serious case opened against the Israeli leader and his family, although the details of that case remain unclear. Israel’s Ynetnews site reports that the initial investigation will focus on any gifts received by Netanyahu and his family, but that the focus could change if investigators find that the prime minister reciprocated the gifts in any way.
Currently serving his fourth term as prime minister, the 67-year-old Netanyahu has survived a number of scandals during his lengthy political career. He and his wife, Sara, have previously been accused of misusing state funds, charges they have rejected as baseless.
The investigation of an Israeli leader is not without precedent. Ehud Olmert, prime minister from 2006 to 2009, is currently serving time after being convicted of bribery and breach of trust in 2014. The late Ariel Sharon, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, was questioned while in office over corruption and bribery allegations concerning him and his two sons, one of whom was subsequently jailed for corruption.