- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

JERUSALEM Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's combative former prime minister tossed out 10 months ago by voters, angrily denied any wrongdoing yesterday after police urged the attorney general to indict him and his wife for corruption.

After a seven-month investigation, police said Mr. Netanyahu accepted bribes, tried to misuse state funds and illegally kept hundreds of gifts that should have been turned over to the state, including a golden letter opener from Vice President Al Gore.

If tried and convicted of the most serious charge, obstruction of justice, Mr. Netanyahu could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

"The whole thing is ridiculous," Mr. Netanyahu said, denying the charges in detail one by one. He called the police investigation tendentious and said the outcome was predetermined.

Mr. Netanyahu's 50-minute interview on Israel television, broadcast live on the evening news, recalled his days as prime minister, when he scheduled his appearances to coincide with prime-time newscasts.

His lawyer, Yaacov Weinroth, called the police report "sloppy." He said it "confirms what we thought: The case is one big nothing."

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein will make the final decision on whether to indict. It was not clear how long that process might take.

The case is just one of a series of scandals plaguing Israel's leadership. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his party are under investigation for violating the campaign finance law; police are looking into a large amount of money President Ezer Weizman received from a French millionaire; and incitement charges are being considered against a religious leader for calling a Cabinet minister "Satan" and other epithets.

In the Netanyahu case, police concluded that the former prime minister should be charged with fraud, attempted misuse of state funds, breach of trust and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Netanyahu's wife, Sara, should be charged with theft and misuse of state funds, police said. Charges were also recommended against Moshe Leon, the director of Mr. Netanyahu's office, and Ezra Zeidoff, his office manager.

Mr. Netanyahu, now 50, a member of the conservative Likud party, was elected prime minister in 1996. After he served three years of his four-year term, his government fell. Mr. Barak, of the One Israel bloc, trounced him in last year's election.

His rule was marked by confrontations with opponents and charges of bias. He railed against reporters he saw as biased against his hard-line policies. At the end of the campaign, he threatened to even the score with the media, and led supporters in a rhythmic chant, "They are afraid," referring to reporters.

Though Mr. Netanyahu resigned from the leadership of the Likud party and from the parliament after the 56 percent to 44 percent Barak landslide, rumors soon surfaced that he was planning a political comeback.

The charges will hurt his chances, said Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz. If he beats the rap, he might win support "on the margins," said the Netanyahu protege, but rivals would not willingly hand over party leadership.

"We do not have the tradition of honoring the tortured martyr," Mr. Steinitz said, charging that the investigation is a political ruse to silence Mr. Netanyahu and remove him from the political arena.

Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami denied this charge. "The police did not, do not, and as long as I am responsible for police, will not have a political agenda," he said.

Mr. Netanyahu's legal troubles started shortly after the May election, when a contractor, Avner Amedi, presented a bill for $110,000 to the government for jobs he had done for Mr. Netanyahu and his wife. That led to an investigation that saw police going through the couple's private home and storage room, looking for presents that were supposed to be state property.

Police said they recovered 700 gifts. State identification stickers were allegedly scraped off some of the items, which included a gold letter opener given by Mr. Gore.

More serious politically is the police charge that Mr. Netanyahu met with Mr. Amedi and other officials and tried to dictate what they would tell police. If he is convicted on an obstruction of justice charge, legal experts said he could be banned from running for public office, among other penalties.

Early in his term, Mr. Netanyahu survived a scandal over a failed attempt to appoint a political crony as attorney general. Police recommended filing charges, but the attorney general chose not to prosecute. Mr. Netanyahu's lawyers predict the same thing will happen this time, too.

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