Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been named as a suspect in two investigations into allegations of “fraud, breach of trust and bribes” as his former chief of staff had signed a deal with prosecutors to testify against him.
The suspicions against Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, were revealed in a court application by detectives on Thursday seeking a gag order on reporting details of negotiations with Ari Harow, the former chief of staff, to become a state witness.
The negotiations were concluded on Friday with Harow signing a deal in which he agreed to testify in the two cases.
The confirmation of the seriousness of the allegations comes on the day after his wife, Sara, was again interviewed by police in a separate case relating to claims for household costs in the prime minister’s residence.
While the scope of the investigations in the so-called cases 1000 and 2000 – the first about gifts from wealthy benefactors and the second over attempts to sway media coverage – have long been known, it is the first time Netanyahu has been publicly designated as a suspect.
Netanyahu’s office denied the accusations and said investigators were trying to bring down his government. “We completely reject the unfounded claims made against the prime minister. The campaign to change the government is under way, but it is destined to fail, for a simple reason: there won’t be anything because there was nothing,” a statement said.
It comes as a third high-profile corruption investigation – case 3000 – has focused on allegations of bribery within his inner circle over a deal to buy submarines from Germany.
The application for the gag order, made to the Rishon Lezion magistrate’s court in central Israel, followed the confirmation by Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, earlier on Thursday that talks were under way with Harow, a close confidant of Netanyahu, to testify in exchange for leniency.
Harow served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years from 2008, when the politician was in opposition. He returned in 2014 to serve as the prime minister’s chief of staff, but resigned a year later amid allegations of corruption, which he denied.
Harow was accused of having used his ties to Netanyahu to advance his private interests. Police have recommended he be indicted for bribery and breach of trust, but Mandelblit has yet to file formal charges against him.
The gag order also affects case 1000, in which the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit giftsfrom billionaire benefactors – most notably expensive cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Netanyahu is the primary suspect in the case. The couple has denied any wrongdoing.
The investigations have begun to have an impact on Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, whose senior figures are sparring publicly over whether their leader can remain in office if he is indicted.
Likud officials have sharply criticised any suggestions Netanyahu may have to step down. “The prime minister does not need to resign, rather he needs to prove his innocence,” said Likud’s coalition chairman, David Bitan.
“There will be no indictment. But let’s say there will be: the charges would still be minor and the prime minister would be able both to function and to prove his innocence.”
Bitan has urged Likud supporters to rally in support of Netanyahu to counter weekly demonstrations against the slow progress of the investigation. Bitan said a rally on Saturday was designed “to protest the invalid and anti-democratic attempt by those on the left who want to topple the government in a an undemocratic fashion”.