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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli prosecutors on Thursday announced the opening of a criminal investigation into the failed start-up of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's challenger, shaking up the final days of what has been a bitter and tumultuous election campaign.
The announcement did not say whether Benny Gantz is a suspect. But it came less than two weeks before the March 2 election and during a campaign in which Gantz's Blue and White party has painted itself as a clean and scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu, who is to go on trial for corruption next month.
In a statement, the Justice Ministry said that after examining documents and considering other evidence, “the acting state prosecutor has decided to move the subject of the suspicions surrounding the company ‘Fifth Dimension’ to a criminal investigation.”
“The investigation will be conducted by Israeli police,” it added.
After retiring from the army, Gantz headed Fifth Dimension, a cybersecurity company that entered talks with Israeli police over the sale of its product. According to Israel's state comptroller, a governmental watchdog, the police may have violated acquisition laws by granting the company a multimillion dollar contract without a public tender. Fifth Dimension later went bankrupt.
Gantz did not immediately comment. But earlier in the day, amid reports that a criminal probe was imminent, he denied any wrongdoing.
“It all sounds like political pressure to get this thing on the public's agenda,” Gantz told Israel's Army Radio. “I am totally at ease. This was checked in the past and no criminal suspicion was found.”
Gantz and Netanyahu are locked in a tight race, the third vote in less than a year after two elections in 2019 ended inconclusively. Pre-election surveys have predicted similar results in next month's vote, potentially extending the deadlock.
It's not clear if the investigation into Fifth Dimension will move the needle. The months leading up to the campaign have been marked by other bombshells, including the unveiling of President Donald Trump's Mideast plan and the announcement that Netanyahu's trial will begin March 17. Neither had much of an effect on opinion polls.
But it is an embarrassment for Gantz, a former military chief who has made Netanyahu's legal troubles the centerpiece of his campaign while trying to present a squeaky clean image.
Netanyahu was charged last year with accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud in three cases in which he is accused of receiving lavish gifts from billionaire friends and of exchanging regulatory favors with media moguls for more palatable coverage of him and his family.
Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and claims the charges have been trumped up by a hostile justice system, police and media that are out to get him.
At a campaign rally in the southern city of Beersheba late Thursday, Netanyahu called on prosecutors to investigate Gantz and other senior Blue and White figures.
“The public needs to know the truth,” he said.