Netanyahu gives cabinet seat to another lawmaker facing bribery charges

Forced to yield his portfolios due to corruption indictment, PM appoints David Bitan agriculture minister; Likud’s Hotovely and Shas’s Cohen also given ministries

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and David Bitan sharing a toast at a Likud faction meeting on February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and David Bitan sharing a toast at a Likud faction meeting on February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a series of high-level cabinet appointments on Sunday after being forced to drop all his ministerial posts due to the criminal charges against him.

Among the officials tapped by the premier was Likud MK David Bitan, who will serve as agriculture minister despite his own legal plight: Last March police recommended he be indicted on multiple corruption charges including bribery, fraud and money laundering.

Police said their two-year investigation had yielded sufficient evidence to charge Bitan, a key Netanyahu ally, with accepting money in exchange for political favors while he served as an MK and previously as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion.

While he has denied any wrongdoing, Bitan, 59, stepped down from his role as coalition whip in 2017 shortly after news of the police investigation broke.

Netanyahu’s cabinet features two other ministers that police recommended stand trial for corruption: Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism. Likud MK Haim Katz stepped down as welfare minister in August after the attorney general announced corruption charges against him.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in Washington, November 2017. (Shmulik Almany/MFA)

Preempting criticism of Bitan’s controversial appointment, Netanyahu’s spokesman released a statement saying the prime minister had promised Bitan a ministerial post well before the police investigation into the latter’s conduct. “The prime minister kept his word,” the spokesman added.

Also given promotions on Sunday were Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, who was tapped for the position of diaspora affairs minister, and Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen, who was appointed housing minister, taking the position from Kulanu-turned-Likud MK Yifat Shasa-Biton, who has instead been moved to the top post in the Welfare Ministry.

Cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment are required to resign from their cabinet posts, though no such explicit order is outlined in Israeli law for prime ministers.

Netanyahu, in November, became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges.

Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu does not have to resign as prime minister, as he currently heads a caretaker government so the action would have “no practical relevance.” But he said the premier did have to relinquish his other posts.

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen attends a Shas party campaign event in Jerusalem on July 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu had promised the High Court of Justice that he would quit all positions except prime minister by the end of 2019. Due to a now-defunct, but not-yet-replaced coalition agreement from the 20th Knesset, one portfolio was promised to a Shas lawmaker while the other two were reserved for Likud MKs.

Just over two years ago, Hotovely found herself embroiled in controversy for remarks she made during a TV interview during which she claimed that US Jews struggle to understand the Middle East because they lead comfortable lives and don’t perform military service.

She later apologized, though did not retract the comments, which deeply angered many American Jewish leaders. Netanyahu had reportedly even briefly considered firing her from her post as deputy foreign minister over the affair.

Thanking Netanyahu for her appointment, Hotovely said she would work to advance policies that will ensure that Jews of all denominations “will feel at home in Israel.”

She vowed to work with the leaders of Jewish communities “in the fight against the rising wave of anti-Semitism in the world.”

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the ceremony for the opening of a new branch of his Agudath Israel party, ahead of the upcoming elections, in the northern city of Safed, July 4, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu also sparked anger when he recently tapped Litzman to take over for him as health minister.

The move elicited harsh condemnations from Australian Jewish organizations angry at the elevation of an official who police recommended be indicted for illicitly seeking to prevent the extradition of an alleged serial sex abuser wanted by Australian authorities.

Responding to the appointment of Bitan, the centrist Blue and White party said that “the Netanyahu government is turning into a crime organization whose sole purpose is to ensure immunity to the man who heads it. ”

The left-wing Democratic Camp similarly lambasted the move. “The Agriculture Ministry is not a prize to be given to corrupt politicians,” the left-wing alliance said in a statement.

The right-wing opposition Yisrael Beytenu party criticized Netanyahu for appointing Cohen to head the Housing Ministry. “It is not enough that Shas already holds the Interior Ministry where it transfers funds to ultra-Orthodox cities at the expense of the periphery. Now the Housing Ministry will similarly transfer agricultural lands to ultra-Orthodox municipalities,” the party charged.

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