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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday he would shelve his additional role as communication minister after police questioned him over allegations he negotiated a deal for good press coverage with a newspaper owner.

Police have questioned Netanyahu three times in two criminal cases in which he is suspected of abuse of office. If charges are brought, political upheaval would likely ensue with pressure on Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, to step down.

The first case involves gifts given to Netanyahu and his family by businessmen and the second is related to conversations he held with the publisher of Israel's largest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Netanyahu said he would appoint Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant from his right-wing Likud party, as a stand-in running the communications ministry for three months, "and then we'll see," he said in a statement issued to reporters.

Netanyahu did not specify the reason for the move.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Union party, had appealed to Israel's Supreme Court last month to order Netanyahu to step down as communications minister over the police investigation.

The liberal daily Haaretz and Channel 2 television reported in January that Netanyahu discussed with Yedioth Ahronoth's owner a deal for better coverage in return for curbs on competition from a free paper owned by U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a staunch supporter of the veteran prime minister.

Haaretz said the conversations were recorded in the run-up to the March 2015 election at Netanyahu's request by a then-staff member, and the tapes were seized by police in a separate investigation.

According to excerpts leaked to Channel Two from a transcript of the conversations, the prime minister told the newspaper publisher: "We're talking about moderation, about reasonable reporting, to lower the level of hostility towards me from 9.5 to 7.5."

It quoted the publisher, Arnon Mozes, as replying: "We have to make sure that you’re prime minister."

Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to have faced criminal investigation. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of breach of trust and bribery in 2014 and Ariel Sharon, premier from 2001-2006, was questioned while in office over allegations of bribery and campaign-financing illegalities.

In the past, Israeli prime ministers have stayed in office long after being put under investigation, and officials who support Netanyahu, now in his fourth term, believe the prospect of charges remains remote.

Netanyahu has often accused Israeli media of being biased against him and in recent weeks accused it of being part of a left-wing plot to overthrow his right-wing government.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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