Coalition chair ‘very disappointed’ with police, prosecutors over PM probes

Coalition chair ‘very disappointed’ with police, prosecutors over PM probes

But as law enforcement faces mounting attacks by Netanyahu allies, David Bitan says he is not seeking officials’ replacement

Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) at a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 22, 2017. (Flash90)
Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) at a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 22, 2017. (Flash90)

Coalition chairman David Bitan said Saturday he was “very disappointed” in police chief Roni Alsheich and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit over their handling of investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but added he was “not seeking to replace them.”

Bitan and other Netanyahu allies have dismissed the investigations and their extensive media coverage as an attempt by the political left to unseat the prime minister through illegitimate means.

Alsheich and Mandelblit, spearheading the investigations, are both Netanyahu appointees.

Amid intensifying attacks by government officials on police and state prosecution officials over the ongoing probes, Bitan said he would not support a bill being advanced by Likud MK David Amsalem to cut the salary of the police chief while raising that of the premier.

MK David Amsalem (Likud), chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, December 12, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bitan, speaking at a cultural event in Holon, claimed the bill was “a lie,” saying Amsalem had not actually presented such legislation and adding that he would “not back” it if Amsalem did.

Netanyahu himself rejected such a proposal, saying he did “not think there is a need to change the prime minister’s salary or the salaries of other officials.”

On Wednesday lawmakers advanced another Amsalem bill that would ban police from giving state prosecutors their opinion on lodging criminal charges against suspects at the conclusion of an investigation.

The contentious proposal — opposed by police, the state attorney and the attorney general — cleared its preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum with 52 lawmakers in favor, 42 opposed.

The bill is seen as part of a spate of recent legislative efforts by coalition politicians to make it harder for prosecutors to charge public officials. It comes as Netanyahu is being investigated in two corruption cases.

Bitan said Saturday that the bill sought to defend suspects’ rights. “Defending those being investigated is part of the rule of law,” he said. “Things have gone too far.”

Although police don’t recommend outright whether to file indictments, they do provide prosecutors with a summary that notes whether there is sufficient evidence a crime was committed. The proposed bill is widely understood as an attempt to prevent officers from influencing the prosecution’s decisions on indictments.

The proposed legislation, which is expected to undergo significant revisions before it becomes law, would impose a one-year jail term on police investigators who violate this directive.

Bitan said he did not intend the final bill to be an outright ban. “It says that in cases where there is an accompanying state prosecutor [to the case], there is no need for a [police] recommendation. If there isn’t one, they can make a recommendation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with coalition chairman MK David Bitan, right, during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, October 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu was questioned by police for a fifth time Thursday, as part of widening investigations into corruption allegations against him.

The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing.

Interrogators from the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit questioned him at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. It was his first interrogation since March.

Netanyahu is facing two separate criminal investigations, known as Case 1000 and Case 2000.

Case 1000 revolves around alleged illicit gifts given to Netanyahu and his family by billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have denied that receiving the gifts constitutes a criminal offense, claiming the value of the items was significantly lower than reported, and that they were mere “trifles” exchanged between close friends.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer speaks at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington, DC, June 9, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

Earlier this week, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was reportedly questioned by police as part of the investigation.

Dermer, considered a close associate of Netanyahu, confirmed to police that at the direction of the prime minister, he asked then-secretary of state John Kerry to help obtain a visa for Milchan, according to the Hadashot news.

The television station also reported that the US State Department is preventing Israeli investigators from gathering testimony from former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro over the visa request.

Case 2000 is focused on an alleged clandestine quid-pro-quo deal made between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher and owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes, in which the prime minister was said to have promised Mozes he would advance legislation to reduce the circulation of Yedioth’s main commercial rival, the freebie Israel Hayom, in exchange for friendlier coverage from Yedioth.

Police investigators are also expected to set a date for Netanyahu to provide testimony as a witness in Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption by senior officials, among them several associates of the prime minister, in Israel’s decision to purchase German submarines.

In an apparent attempt to block police from making Netanyahu a suspect in Case 3000, and potentially also put an end to Cases 1000 and 2000, Amsalem had also proposed a bill that would grant serving prime ministers immunity from corruption investigations.

Despite threats from Likud lawmakers — notably including Bitan — to bring down the government if that bill was not advanced, the proposal has now been shelved amid coalition disagreements.

Marissa Newman and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report. 

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