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Fresh corruption scandals hit Israel as interior minister probed again

Arye Deri placed under investigation for alleged campaign finance irregularities, and Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog also facing probe
Interior Minister Arye Deri, is an ultra-Orthodox party leader who has already served prison time for corruption (AFP)

Fresh corruption allegations have surfaced in Israel, with two key political figures now being investigated for possible wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, Israeli media reported that opposition Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog was being investigated for possible campaign finance irregularities and for receiving funds illegally.

Herzog was quick to hit back at the accusations, calling them "political slander that [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] Likud party and frustrated activists tried to disseminate before the elections, and were denied at the time".

"I'm sure the probe will disprove these strange claims once and for all," he said, adding that he will cooperate with the examination fully. 

Media originally reported that a “key player in Israel’s political system” was wanted on corruption charges but did not specifically name Herzog.

The revelation came less than a day after Israeli media reported that Interior Minister Arye Deri, an ultra-Orthodox party leader who has already served prison time for corruption, was also being investigated.

Deri confirmed on his Twitter account that he was under investigation, saying he had requested that a gag order on the publication of his name be lifted and that he was ready to "respond to all questions".

Both of the investigations are believed to have been under way for months but are still in relatively early stages and neither politician has as yet been questioned directly, Haaretz said.

According to initial reports, the accusations against Deri are more serious than those against Hertzog but authorities are staying pretty tight-lipped on both cases at the moment.

Deri, head of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, became interior minister in January after the resignation of Silvan Shalom following allegations of sexual harassment.

Shas is vital to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing governing coalition, which holds a one-seat majority in parliament.

Deri, who had served as interior minister from 1988 to 1993, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2000 for taking $155,000 in bribes, though his sentence was reduced by a third for good behaviour.

Deri resigned as economy minister in November after refusing to overrule anti-trust authorities' objections to a major natural gas deal being pushed by Netanyahu.

His resignation allowed Netanyahu to take over the economy ministry himself and move ahead on the gas deal.

In January, critics of Deri's appointment as interior minister said the post should not be granted to someone who had been convicted for corruption. Others argued that Deri had paid his debt to society.

The interior ministry notably oversees local government and efforts to prevent illegal immigration. The police fall under a separate ministry.

In February, Ehud Olmert became the country's first former prime minister to end up behind bars after he was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to a 19-month prison term for separate counts of bribery and obstruction of justice.