By Rory Jones
TEL AVIV -- Israeli police said they questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for three hours at his official residence on Monday on suspicion of receiving unlawful gifts.
Local media outlets had in recent days reported police were considering launching a criminal probe on the matter. Mr. Netanyahu and his family have previously been subjects of allegations of corruption, which they have repeatedly denied. They have never been charged by police. A spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu didn't respond to a request for comment.
"We pay attention to publications in the media," Mr. Netanyahu told a Monday meeting of his Likud party in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, according to Israeli television. But regarding an investigation, "there will be nothing because there is nothing."
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of Clinique Laboratories LLC, a subsidiary of Estée Lauder Cos., was among those reported by the daily Haaretz newspaper and other media to have given Mr. Netanyahu gifts. Israeli police have questioned Mr. Lauder, his lawyer has said. Haaretz reported that Mr. Lauder said he had bought suits for Mr. Netanyahu and provided hospitality to the prime minister's 25-year-old son, Yair, during his time overseas.
A spokesman for Mr. Lauder couldn't be reached for comment.
The reported investigation into Mr. Netanyahu comes as he faces growing pressure internationally and at home.
Last month, he lambasted the U.S., Israel's main ally, for allowing the United Nations to censure his government over its controversial plans to build new settlements in the occupied West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has since faced criticism from the Israeli opposition and members of his own party for his handling of the U.N. move.
Israeli media in November criticized him over a conflict of interest he had failed to make public.
Mr. Netanyahu's lawyer acted for a sales representative for German engineering giant Thyssenkrupp AG in a deal for the Israeli government to buy submarines, a contract pushed by the prime minister despite opposition from some of his defense officials.
Opposition lawmakers held up Monday's reported police probe as a sign that Mr. Netanyahu was unfit to lead.
"As the investigation deepens, Netanyahu's grip on the government will weaken, and then the people will look for an alternative," said Isaac Herzog, leader of the left-wing Zionist Union party, according to Army Radio.
Mr. Netanyahu isn't the first Israeli prime minister to face investigation.
Former leader Ehud Olmert last year began serving a 19-month sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice after an investigation forced him from office in 2009.
"If two prime ministers in a row fall from office because of corruption, it will be very hard to rehabilitate the public's trust in its leadership," Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said.
Mr. Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and again since 2009.
An Israeli government watchdog last year released a highly critical report on his travel expenses during his tenure as finance minister more than a decade ago.
In the report, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira said Mr. Netanyahu failed to tell a parliamentary committee that numerous trips he and family members took between 2003 and 2005 were paid for by private individuals and organizations.
The travel was investigated in 2014 by then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who concluded that the available evidence provided no grounds for a criminal investigation.
Mr. Shapira reprimanded the prime minister again that same year, saying living and hospitality expenses for both his official residence and private home were exorbitant.
After an investigation, Mr. Shapira said he hadn't found suspicion of criminal conduct by the prime minister or his aides. But, his office wrote, an elected official should have displayed more "public sensitivity."
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