Police question Israeli leader’s ally about corruption claims
Israeli police on Sunday questioned a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges from his pre-parliament days as he was pushing a pro-Netanyahu legislation widely seen as stifling police investigations.
Coalition whip David Bitan was grilled in relation to accusations that he promoted the interests of criminals in return for debt relief while he was a municipal politician years ago.
Bitan is the driving force behind a legislation push seen as aiding the beleaguered Netanyahu, who faces multiple corruption accusations. Bitan’s so-called recommendations bill would end the police’s current practice of recommending to the state prosecution office whether to indict suspects upon completing their investigations.
It also aims to stem leaks from the investigations themselves, stating that no police recommendations be made public and penalising those found leaking to the media.
Netanyahu’s Likud party was set to bring the bill for a parliamentary vote on Monday, but appears to be short on numbers and is likely to delay it. Their hope is to move the bill forward quickly so that it will also apply to current investigations into Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has been questioned in two cases and police say they suspect him of being involved in bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Police have already grilled him six times regarding gifts he received from Hollywood and business figures, and in another probe about secret talks with the publisher of a major Israeli newspaper in which Netanyahu allegedly requested positive coverage in exchange for reining in a free pro-Netanyahu daily. One of his closest former aides has become a state’s witness against him.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and calls the accusations a witch hunt orchestrated by a hostile media.
Another investigation has engulfed his close associates and dominated news in Israel. The probe is related to a possible conflict of interest involving a US$2 billion purchase of German submarines.
Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, who is also his cousin, represented the German firm involved and is suspected of trading his influence over the prime minister in return for a hefty cut of the deal. A former Cabinet minister and top former navy and security officials have been questioned by police. Netanyahu has yet to be named a suspect in that probe.
Bitan’s questioning comes a day after tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets of Tel Aviv Saturday night for an anti-corruption rally calling on Netanyahu to resign. It was one of the largest demonstrations yet against Netanyahu’s lengthy rule.
“I think the time has come to change the government. The government is corrupt. We’re sick of the corrupt,” said protester Avi Elmozlinu.
Organisers are hoping that the grass roots movement picks up steam and becomes a regular Saturday night ritual that eventually forces Netanyahu from power.