Police grill Netanyahu over controversial Bar-On deal

JERUSALEM — Police have questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about allegations of corruption surrounding the appointment of an attorney general.

The four-hour interview took place the same day that the lawyer of a key figure in the probe announced his resignation, charging that his client had sought to push through the ill-fated appointment.

Three senior police investigators, including Sando Mazur, who is overseeing the inquiry, arrived Tuesday evening at the prime minister's Jerusalem office to question Netanyahu about the factors that led to last month's naming of Jerusalem lawyer Roni Bar-On as attorney general.

Netanyahu also was questioned about the Jan. 10 Cabinet vote approving Bar-On's appointment, and about which of his aides were behind naming him for the post.

The appointment of Bar-On, a veteran Likud activist and criminal lawyer, spurred sharp objections in both political and legal spheres. Opponents charged that he lacked the experience to hold Israel's top legal post.

Bar-On stepped down Jan. 12 shortly before his scheduled swearing-in. Two weeks later, the Cabinet unanimously approved District Judge Elyakim Rubinstein to serve as Israel's attorney general.

The police investigation was launched after an Israel Television report alleged that Bar-On was appointed as part of a deal to provide a plea bargain to one of Netanyahu's political allies, Shas Knesset member Aryeh Deri, who is on trial for corruption.

In turn, Deri reportedly promised his party's crucial support for the Hebron agreement, which was coming up for Cabinet approval at the time.

Israel Television later reported that Netanyahu was not believed to be directly involved in any alleged deal-making.

On Tuesday, Dan Avi-Yitzhak, Deri's lawyer, resigned in a letter that was published by the Israeli daily Ma'ariv.

In the letter, Avi-Yitzhak accused Deri of slandering him and his wife, adding, "I dared out of pure and relevant reasons to oppose your plan to appoint Roni Bar-On as attorney general."

Avi-Yitzhak was one of the candidates for attorney general but was passed over for Bar-On, according to reports.

Deri subsequently denied Avi-Yitzhak's allegations.

"I never was involved in any kind of deal," Deri told Israel Radio on Wednesday, when he was about to begin another round of police questioning regarding his role in the appointment of Bar-On. "It's a lie."

The Bar-On affair is the latest scandal to plague the Netanyahu government.

The first justice minister to serve in Netanyahu's Cabinet, Ya'acov Ne'eman, is currently on trial for obstructing justice and interfering in Deri's trial.

A close Netanyahu ally, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, is being tried for financial irregularities dating back to the 1988 elections, when he served as Likud treasurer.

Police also are investigating allegations that the head of the Prime Minister's Office, Avigdor Lieberman, tried to sabotage the Israel Broadcasting Authority by deliberately padding the budget it submitted to the Knesset.