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Israeli police mount government corruption probe

January 26, 1997
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli police launched an investigation Sunday into allegations of high-level political corruption that some say could bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's seven-month-old government.

State Prosecutor Edna Arbel ordered the investigation into Netanyahu's ill-fated appointment of an attorney general days after Israel's state-run Channel One reported that the appointment was part of an illegal political deal.

Arbel said she would demand the station hand over its evidence to police. If Channel One refuses, she said she would consider filing a lawsuit to obtain the material.

"There is a supreme national interest in the exposure of most of the material upon which the report was based," Arbel said. "The revelation is also important for removing and dispelling any suspicions against those not involved."

Netanyahu may even be summoned for questioning.

In its report, which first aired Wednesday, Channel One cited anonymous sources who said lawyer Roni Bar-On was appointed attorney general after promising to arrange a plea bargain for Aryeh Deri, whose Shas Party holds a deciding vote in Netanyahu's coalition government.

Deri is on trial for various embezzlement and fraud charges.

According to the report, Shas also agreed to vote in favor of the Hebron troop redeployment deal Netanyahu signed in exchange for Bar-On's appointment. Bar-On, in turn, agreed, to drop the court case against Deri, the station said.

Seven ministers in Netanyahu's 18-member Cabinet voted against the Hebron agreement, reached after months of intense negotiations. Opposition by Shas' two ministers might have jeopardized the deal.

Cabinet: Government could collapse

Asked on television if the government could stay in office if the allegations proved accurate, Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani said: "If the affair is in fact as it appears, at least, there is no doubt that this government has no place."

Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky added, "If there was any kind of bargain, I recommend to everyone involved to admit it and resign because this is an unprecedented crime."

And in an editorial Sunday headlined "Earthquake," Israel's Maariv newspaper said the report, if true, could change "the entire political system."

"Heads are going to roll and people will go to prison," the paper said.

Officials deny allegations

Bar-On, who resigned within 12 hours of taking office earlier this month amid a storm of criticism over his political connections, denied the allegations, as did Deri and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu on Friday accused the press of circulating an unfounded "smear campaign" and called for a police investigation. Channel One reporter Ayala Hasson, in a second report later Friday, said her information indicated Netanyahu did not know about the specific deal between Bar-On and Deri.

However, Channel One and Hasson have stood by the original report and its sources.

"We will take this all the way. I'm not concerned, I'm not scared and I'm not worried. We will protect our sources but will act within the confines of the law," said Rafik Halabi, editor of Channel One's nightly newscast.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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