Graft suspicions reportedly delay approval of Netanyahu’s cabinet picks

Graft suspicions reportedly delay approval of Netanyahu’s cabinet picks

AG said to advise PM against holding phone vote on appointment of David Bitan, who police have recommended be indicted for bribery and other corruption charges

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK David Bitan at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv on August 9, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK David Bitan at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv on August 9, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A series of ministerial appointments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reportedly not be voted on until next week due to corruption suspicions against one of the lawmakers.

While past nominees to Netanyahu’s transition government have been approved over the telephone, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit advised the premier that the appointment of Likud MK David Bitan as agriculture minister should wait until the next cabinet meeting, the Walla news site reported Wednesday.

Police recommended last year that Bitan be indicted on multiple corruption charges including bribery, fraud and money laundering over allegations he accepted money in exchange for political favors while he served as an MK and previously as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion.

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

Likud MK David Bitan leaves the offices of the Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit on September 16, 2018, after being questioning by police in a corruption case. (Flash90)

Mandelblit said it was better to have the government discuss the appointment in person due to the potential complications and possible public blowback over Bitan’s appointment, the report cited unnamed sources familiar with the matter as saying.

Netanyahu’s announcement on Sunday of Bitan’s appointment came after the prime minister was forced to drop all his ministerial posts due to the criminal charges against him.

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.

Preempting criticism of Bitan’s 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 Shasha-Biton, who has instead been moved to the top post in the Welfare Ministry.

Their appointments will now also be delayed because of Bitan, according to Walla.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at his office in Jerusalem, December 1, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

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 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/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.

Ministerial appointments normally require the approval of the full Knesset, but under a transition government, appointees who are already lawmakers only need to be approved by the cabinet.

Israel has had a transition government since December 2018, when the Knesset voted to dissolve and go to early elections. A third round of elections will be held March 2, after the previous two failed to result in a government, a first in Israeli history.

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