Coalition chair MK David Bitan suspected of receiving bribes, money laundering
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Coalition chair MK David Bitan suspected of receiving bribes, money laundering

Close ally of prime minister Netanyahu questioned by cops as part of major investigation linked to crime organizations

Coalition chairman Likud MK David Bitan, right, in the Knesset, November 29, 2017. (Flash90)
Coalition chairman Likud MK David Bitan, right, in the Knesset, November 29, 2017. (Flash90)

Coalition chairman MK David Bitan was questioned by police Sunday at the Lahav 433 national crime unit on suspicion of receiving bribes, fraud, money laundering, and breach of trust.

The Likud party lawmaker, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also suspected taking bribes from crime organizations in Rishon Lezion after he became the deputy mayor of the city in 2015, and of diverting a tender toward the son of an acquaintance in return for money.

Bitan was questioned by police hours after 17 Rishon Lezion city officials were arrested or questioned as part of a widening corruption probe into suspected bribe-taking. Deputy Commissioner Meni Yitzhaki, the Israel Police’s top investigations officer, earlier notified Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that police sought to question Bitan.

“This morning, 10 suspects were detained for questioning under caution and seven others were detained on suspicion of involvement in bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and money laundering offenses under the income tax laws,” police said in a statement about the 18-month investigation.

“Evidence was gathered for a long period of time involving suspects connected to serious criminal activity and officials in various local authorities, as well as on a national level,” it said.

At least 17 employees of the Rishon Lezion municipality were arrested Sunday morning as part of the probe, police said.

Among those scooped up by police after long investigation were the mayor, two parliamentary aides, contractors, business people, and a senior figure in a crime organization.

Mayor Dov Zur is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and of promoting certain construction projects in the city together with contractors. His remand was extended Sunday for five days.

Police said the arrested suspects were to be brought for a remand hearing at the Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s court later in the day.

Hadashot news reported the probe is focusing on suspicions that senior figures in the city municipality received benefits to promote business interests of others.

A key issue concerns the “1000 Complex,” a site of 1,000 dunams (250 acres) in the western part of Rishon Lezion that was offered in a tender. Investigators suspect that the winning bid was helped by bribes, and are looking into Bitan’s involvement in the tender, which went an acquaintance’s son.

At the time Bitan had run into financial difficulties including heavy debts, the report said.

Bitan is protected by parliamentary immunity that can only be lifted with the approval of the speaker and the Knesset House Committee.

Several coalition lawmakers, including prominent defenders of Netanyahu, cried foul over the timing of police in revealing the year-long graft and organized crime investigation surrounding Bitan.

The probe broke open just as Bitan, a key Netanyahu ally, was working to gather the votes for the final vote Monday on a bill that would forbid police from issuing recommendations about indictments when they conclude an investigation into a high-profile personage.

The bill is seen by critics as designed to protect Netanyahu from his multiple fraud investigations. It is opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, and by police themselves.

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