Coalition chairman David Bitan was questioned by police for a second time Wednesday at the Lahav 433 national crime unit on suspicion of receiving bribes, fraud, money laundering, and breach of trust.
As he left his house on the way to his interrogation, Bitan said he had strong support from his fellow Likud party members, and decried the leaks from the investigation.
“It is accepted that people are not allowed to give interviews during interrogations, but they should ensure there are no leaks,” he said. “We filed a request with the court in which we mentioned this. I have received good support from my friends in Likud.”
On Tuesday Bitan petitioned the court with a request he be permitted to give interviews to counter what he described as biased police leaks to the media.
Bitan’s lawyer, Ephraim Demari, told reporters, “I can only say that he was very relieved to get to the interrogation. He wants to dispel the cloud hanging over his head and [silence] the rumor mill.”
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Bitan’s wife, Hagit, had been grilled for 10 hours on Sunday over the suspected money laundering and then released to house arrest at her sister’s home. During her interrogation, she was asked about a sum of more than NIS 1.5 million (roughly $430,000) deposited in her bank account around eight years ago. At the time, her husband’s bank account was under restrictions due to debts amounting to millions of shekels.
On Monday police raided the offices of the Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan soccer club in the city’s Winter Stadium, detaining the club’s owner, Gal Yosef, and questioning him as part of the investigation involving Bitan.
Police said that Yosef was interrogated for several hours on the connection he had with Bitan, in light of checks that Bitan gave him a decade ago when he was in trouble due to unregulated loans. Yosef was released after posting a bond.
Bitan is reportedly suspected of having received a bribe from a crime figure in return for swaying a real estate tender in his favor when Bitan was serving as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion. On Monday, police announced that they had arrested Hossam Jarushi, a senior member of the Jarushi crime family, in connection with the case.
According to Channel 10, Bitan maintained his innocence to investigators during questioning, reportedly saying, “I have never taken a bribe or laundered money. I don’t know the Jarushi family. I’ve never met them. My enemies are spreading rumors about me. What have I got to do with a crime family?”
Some 20 Rishon Lezion city officials were arrested or questioned as part of the widening corruption probe, known as Case 1803. Among those scooped up by police after a long investigation were Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Zur, two parliamentary aides, contractors, and businesspeople.
The Jarushi family has long been a target of police, and is considered one of the nation’s biggest crime organizations, handling hundreds of millions of shekels a year. Its dealings are said to include drug trafficking, gambling dens, score-settling, racketeering, weapons dealing and money forgery. It is believed to have carried out multiple assassinations.
Investigators suspect that Jarushi covered Bitan’s debts in return for the contract to carry out earthworks for the so-called “Mit’ham 1000” real estate project, a 1,000-dunam (250-acre) development project that is also tied to Bitan. According to Haaretz, police also suspect Jarushi gave other financial assistance to Bitan.
Hadashot news reported that Bitan, when serving as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion, accrued debts of some NIS 16 million ($4.6 million), leading to the restrictions on his bank account. Bitan, who served in the post between 2005 and 2015, is suspected of paying back the money within two years through crooked deals. He is also suspected of receiving gifts and bribes after becoming a member of Knesset in 2015, the report said.
On Sunday, the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court extended Jarushi’s arrest by three days. Bitan, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was questioned on Sunday for a marathon 13 hours by the Lahav 433 Serious Crimes Unit.
Investigators have reportedly gathered considerable evidence including documents, recordings, and video footage. One of the suspects in the case has also apparently agreed to work with police and provide evidence against the other suspects. The Walla news site reported Monday that police are also seeking to convince another of the suspects to become a state witness.
Zur, the mayor, is suspected of bribery, fraud, breach of trust and promoting certain construction projects in the city together with contractors. His remand was extended Sunday for five days. The arrest of a Rishon Lezion businessman, who is a central figure in the investigation but whose name has not been cleared for publication, was extended by 12 days. Police sources were quoted in Israeli media on Sunday as saying that if Bitan were not a Knesset member and protected by immunity, he would also be under arrest.
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, which has now been withdrawn for the time being, 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 the police themselves.