JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already reeling from a damaging police report into alleged corruption, faced yet another scandal on Tuesday — with allegations that a longtime confidant attempted to bribe a judge in exchange for dropping a corruption case against the Israeli leader's wife.
Netanyahu quickly denounced the allegations. But they presented an embarrassing new headache for him as a growing list of members of his inner circle gets swept up in scandals. The latest case surrounds Nir Hefetz, a longtime media adviser to Netanyahu and his family.
Hefetz is suspected of suggesting, through a middleman, to Judge Hila Gerstel in 2015 that she could be appointed attorney general if she dismissed a pending case against Sara Netanyahu's excessive household spending. Hefetz and the middleman are being held in police custody.
The offer never materialized, and Israel's current attorney general recommended last fall indicting Mrs. Netanyahu in the case. But Israeli media, including columnist Ben Caspit, who broke the story, said the judge was shocked by the offer. Police said Tuesday she had given testimony as part of their investigation.
The Haaretz daily said Gerstel had spoken about the incident at the time to her colleague Esther Hayut, who is now the Supreme Court's chief justice. Media reports said that Hayut is expected to be questioned by police.
Netanyahu said the latest suspicions were a continuation of a wider media witch hunt against him and his family. "I never consulted Nir Hefetz on this matter, he never proposed anything to me on this issue, and you know what? I don't believe that he suggested this possibility with anyone," Netanyahu said in a statement posted on Facebook on Tuesday, calling the claims "total madness."
Earlier on Tuesday, Hefetz was identified as a central suspect in another case. Police said Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, the former director of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, are suspected of promoting regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel's Bezeq telecom company. In return, Bezeq's popular news site, Walla, allegedly provided favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his family.
Bezeq's controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch is also in custody, along with his wife, son and other top Bezeq executives. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.
The prime minister, who held the communications portfolio until last year, has not yet been named as a suspect in either of this week's cases, though he may soon be questioned. But the cases gave new fuel to opposition calls for Netanyahu to step aside as he fights a growing list of corruption scandals. Netanyahu dismissed the investigations as "delusional, fabricated claims" that are part of an "orchestrated campaign" against him and vowed to "continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly, discreetly and with great dedication."
Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid Party, said that if Netanyahu doesn't want to resign, he should at least declare himself "incapacitated," allowing a caretaker prime minister to be appointed.
"Israel deserves a full-time prime minister who is not engaged in anything else. Let him choose whatever path is convenient for him," Lapid said. "Netanyahu has become a liability for the citizens of Israel," added Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labor Party. "Every day that he stays in office is damage to the country."
The latest probes come days after police announced that there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases. Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, will make the final decision on whether to file charges — a process that is expected to take several months.
Netanyahu is accused of receiving lavish gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In return, police say Netanyahu operated on Milchan's behalf on U.S. visa matters, legislated a tax break and connected him with an Indian businessman.
In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of offering a newspaper publisher legislation that would weaken his paper's main rival in return for more favorable coverage. Netanyahu has long accused the Israeli press corps of being biased against him and has taken steps to counter it by promoting more sympathetic outlets.
Netanyahu's backers have also lashed out at police, accusing them of an overzealous campaign to topple him. Israel's police chief, Roni Alsheikh, said Tuesday that the police recommendations were coordinated with the attorney general and were handled in a professional manner.
"Our main objective is to remain neutral and professional," he said in a speech to visiting Jewish American leaders. "We keep out of the media conversation, neither right nor left, but only on the side of the law."
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.