Sat, Apr 04, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Police probe Israeli foreign minister

AFP , JERUSALEM

Two days after taking office as Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman was dramatically hauled in by police on Thursday and questioned for more than seven hours over graft allegations.

When news broke of his interrogation, the head of the nationalist Israel Beiteinu party had already created shockwaves in Israel and around the world by taking a hard line toward the peace process with the Palestinians.

Lieberman, who only began work in earnest on Wednesday, was quizzed by investigators from the fraud department “on suspicion of corruption, fraud, money laundering and breach of trust,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Media reports said he received “very large sums of money from abroad” to finance his electoral campaign. This money was reportedly channeled through fictitious firms and various bank accounts.

Lieberman’s seven hours being grilled by police drew the limelight from his outspoken comments on policy, which had prompted fears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might bury the troubled peace talks.

On Thursday, a day after the new foreign minister sparked criticism by saying Israel was not bound by a US-backed 2007 agreement to restart talks with the Palestinians, he rejected any withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

Lieberman has been dogged by corruption allegations for years, but has never been charged. Police revived one probe just weeks before the election, but the move only boosted his popularity as it was perceived as politically motivated, pollsters said.

A statement from his office said Lieberman was “in a hurry to end this inquiry which has gone on for 13 years. The minister cooperated and answered the investigators’ questions.”

In recent weeks, police had refrained from seeking to speak to Lieberman about their ongoing investigations because of the talks to form a new government after the Israeli general election on Feb. 10.

That election was called when Ehud Olmert decided to stand down as prime minister after a series of corruption allegations were made against him.

Lieberman immigrated to Israel in 1978 at the age of 20 and for a time worked as a bouncer in a nightclub in Beersheva. For years, he was a loyal member of the long-dominant Likud party and served as chief of staff when Netanyahu was previously prime minister.

Then in 1999, he formed his own party aimed at capturing the votes from the bulging Soviet immigrant community.

He was crowned the new kingmaker of Israeli politics after the party placed third in the elections, winning 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset, up from the 11 the party previously held.

The pudgy, bearded Lieberman has been in the Cabinet three times before and served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff during the latter’s previous stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

Israeli police last week called off one probe into Olmert’s activities, but he is still under investigation over suspicions of unlawful appointments he allegedly made while he was trade and industry minister from 2003 to 2006.

Israeli Attorney General Menahem Mazuz has notified Olmert of his intention to charge him over two separate allegations that he multiplied bills for foreign trips and that he unlawfully accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from US financier Morris Talansky.

Earlier this month, police recommended that Olmert be indicted over yet another graft case for allegedly granting preferential treatment to a factory represented by a friend.

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