After quitting post over link to corruption probe, settler leader wants back in

In announcing his candidacy for Samaria Regional Council chairman, Gershon Mesika comes out swinging at the incumbent who replaced him 3 years ago after he became a state’s witness

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 26, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 26, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When Gershon Mesika announced his resignation as chairman of the Samaria Regional Council after becoming a state’s witness in a high-profile corruption probe in May 2015, he assured residents of the area, in the northern West Bank, that he was not done yet.

“I will continue to make every effort to develop and build Samaria. This has been my sole goal in the past, the present and it will be in the future,” he said.

Three years have passed and Mesika is now making good on that pledge, officially declaring his candidacy in the October municipal elections, when the 65-year-old hopes to be re-elected to the same post from which he was ousted over his role in the so-called Yisrael Beytenu corruption scandal.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, Mesika referred to his involvement in the probe as a mere “mishap.”

The former Samaria chairman firstly pointed out that the prosecution had acknowledged in its state’s witness agreement that he had acted for the sake of the regional council and not out of his own self-interest.

The way Mesika explains it, he agreed to give NIS 1 million ($276,185) to then-deputy minister and Yisrael Beytenu secretary-general Faina Kirshenbaum in exchange for the funneling of her faction’s coalition funds to erase the NIS 3.5 million ($966,646) in debt owed by the Samaria Development Company, a subsidiary group of the municipality.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika attends an Internal Affairs and Environment committee meeting in the Knesset on December 30, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In December 2014, police briefly arrested Mesika on suspicion of theft by a public official, fraud, and falsifying documents.

Five months later, he signed an agreement to turn state’s witness in order to avoid charges.

Mesika went on to give police information about funds that were transferred to senior officials, among them Kirshenbaum, who stepped down as deputy interior minister earlier that year after news of the investigation broke.

Police said at the time that a year-long covert investigation revealed a labyrinthine system in which politicians funneled public funds and favors to local bodies and other groups, as well as their members, in exchange for kickbacks.

The investigation targeted a number of high-level officials in the Yisrael Beytenu party just months before the March 2015 general election, and party leader Avigdor Liberman accused police of an ongoing witch hunt against him.

Yisrael Beytenu Avigdor Liberman (left) holds a press conference with Faina Kirshenbaum, July 20, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In various interviews Mesika has given since signing the agreement with the State Prosecutor’s Office, he has asserted that he acted “as any council chairman would have, does and will continue to act.”

He acknowledged that he should have been more careful in ensuring that the money he gave was not pocketed by private individuals connected to Yisrael Beytenu, but added that he was most concerned with preventing the dismissal of some 150 municipal employees who would have been laid off had the debt not been covered.

“There was a mishap. I took responsibility, resigned and went home for three years,” Mesika summarized. “Now, I’m ready to return and continue the great work I was doing — more work than any council chairman has been able to accomplish.”

Who decides who is fit?

When word got out last month of Mesika’s interest in returning to his old post in the Samaria Regional Council, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan was quick to lambaste the move publicly.

“We have recently been informed of a person who headed a regional council, who admitted to giving bribes, resigned, and now, very soon, will announce that he intends to run again for the chairmanship of the council he headed,” Nitzan said during his address at the Israel Bar Association’s annual conference.

“I’ll remind you that a state’s witness is a criminal for whom the prosecution has found that there is significant public interest to show (him or her) leniency in order to prosecute other more significant criminals — but (this person) is still a criminal,” Nitzan stated, clearly referring to Mesika.

Attorney General Avichai aendelblit (L) and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan attend a Justice Ministry conference in Tel Aviv on December 21, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit went a step further, sending a personal letter to the ousted Samaria chairman last month telling him that “it would certainly be inappropriate for you to take on the position that you filled out when you committed these serious crimes, for which you did not stand trial just because you signed an agreement with the state.”

Mesika slammed the “absurdity” of Mandelblit’s comments.

“The attorney general is supposed to say what is forbidden and what is permitted. Whether or not it is appropriate for me to take on the position is for the public to decide.”

The 65-year-old stressed that the state’s witness agreement that he signed did not include a clause banning him from running for the position at a later date.

Running against his protégé

While the Thursday announcement has spiked excitement among a group of his supporters, who have been hanging “Run, Gershon, Run” signs in settlements throughout the northern West Bank over the past month, Mesika faces considerable competition from none other than his protégé Yossi Dagan.

Mesika appointed Dagan as his deputy after winning his second term as council chairman in 2012. The 36-year-old resident of Shavei Shomron headed the municipality’s highly touted advocacy initiative, “Samaria, nice to meet you,” which seeks to bring leaders from Israel and around the globe to the Jewish communities of the northern West Bank in order to learn the settler narrative firsthand.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan speaks during a protest against the planned eviction of the outpost of Amona, in front of the Knesset on January 30, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The student went on to replace the teacher when Mesika resigned in 2015, and although both chairmen have enjoyed significant support from settlers across the regional council, their styles of leadership differ considerably.

While both are seen as having larger than life personalities, Dagan is the more fiery of the two, and he has used his media savvy and political clout in the Likud party to launch several aggressive campaigns against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that have earned him national headlines.

In an apparent recognition of the formidable opponent he is facing, Mesika used the announcement of his candidacy to take a shot at his former number two.

“My deputy, Yossi Dagan, was aware of all the (Yisrael Beytenu) proceedings, of course, but I chose to take personal responsibility and time out from running the council,” Mesika wrote.

However, the jab appeared to have boomeranged as Samaria chief rabbi and Mesika confidant Elyakim Levanon released a statement of his own on Saturday evening, rejected the comments as false.

Levanon attested to having been by Mesika’s side throughout the investigation during which “Yossi Dagan’s name never came up, even once.”

“I call upon all those participating in the election campaign to be truthful, and not disseminate information that has no basis,” he concluded.

“I know Yossi better than Yossi knows Yossi,” his predecessor claimed

For his part, Mesika stood by his comments regarding Dagan’s knowledge of his dealings with Faina Kirshenbaum.

“I’m prepared to take a lie detector test or even be sued,” he claimed, adding that Levanon was being pressured to involve himself in matters that are beyond his scope.

Mesika claimed that since expressing his interest in running, he has been the target of a series of personal attacks claiming he is unfit to lead the regional council.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika (L) gives a tour of the northern West Bank with his deputy Yossi Dagan (right) to Transportation Minister Israel Katz in 2012. (Samaria Regional Council)

Asked if he thought Dagan was behind the campaign of “threats, demagoguery and disinformation,” Mesika refused to dismiss the possibility, saying that “everyone knows which way the wind is blowing.”

“I know Yossi better than Yossi knows Yossi,” he added, leaving little doubt as to whether he thought Dagan was responsible for the efforts to undermine him.

Placing residents in an awkward position

With both leaders heavily praised for their contributions to the development of settlements in the northern West Bank during their respective terms in office (Mesika in 2007-2015 and Dagan from 2015 to the present), Mesika must explain what he plans on bringing to the table to warrant another chance at the municipality’s top post.

While he touted his accomplishment in expanding the regional council’s reputation during his helm, he largely refrained from pointing out anything he saw as a problem in Dagan’s tenure.

However, asked whether he would work with the Yesha settlement umbrella council — something that Dagan has largely avoided doing since taking office — Mesika assured that was his plan.

“The Yesha Council belongs to all of us and we have to work together. There can be no soloists,” he said.

In a final dig at his successor, Mesika said he planned on bringing back the “momentum” in building and developing the municipality that he claimed had stalled since his resignation.

“We must return to actions and development, and less headlines and media spotlight.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with settler leader Yossi Dagan at event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Dagan largely declined a request for comment on this report, referring The Times of Israel’s to Levanon’s statement dismissing Mesika’s claims and calling on his predecessor to refrain from disinformation campaigns.

For many Samaria residents who have appreciated both Dagan and Mesika, the latter’s candidacy announcement offers an uncomfortable challenge.

“By the two of them competing — Yossi and Gershon, who are from the same team — they are putting a lot of people, like myself, in a very awkward situation because we have great respect and friendship toward both of them and we’re being forced to choose,” said David Ha’ivri, who has served as an adviser to both chairmen.

Ha’ivri explained that despite Mesika’s connection in the Yisrael Beytenu scandal, the community of Israelis in the northern West Bank does not think of him as corrupt and understands that he was acting in their benefit.

“However, there is a feeling that he did his service, and it is time to move on.”

“There is deep appreciation for Gershon, and the public is not angry with him that he got caught up in the scandal. They don’t view him as corrupt; however, there is a feeling that he did his service and it is time to move on,” he concluded.

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