Hebrew media review

Grilled Bitan with a side of toasted police bill

Press feasts on news that coalition whip is under investigation for crooked dealings, but sees Netanyahu pulling out of recommendations bill as just an appetizer for what may come

MK David Bitan at a demonstration in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Petah Tikva on August 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
MK David Bitan at a demonstration in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Petah Tikva on August 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Had David Bitan just been suspected of being a small-time crook in the bowels of some municipality, he might have been enough for a small blurb on page 7. Had David Bitan just been suspected of being a main cog in systematic corruption and underworld dealings from within the municipality of Rishon Lezion — Israel’s fourth-largest city — the news might have led page 7. Had David Bitan just been a Likud backbencher suspected of city hall corruption years ago, it might have been on the bottom of the front page. Had David Bitan just been a major Netanyahu ally and coalition whip suspected of all of these things, including after he entered the Knesset, it might have made it above the fold on the front page.

But David Bitan is not only all that, but also the main bulldog behind a legislative effort meant to protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from his own corruption investigation, an effort that has even some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners up in arms. And so the news that he is suspected of running a large fraud ring is the biggest news in the land Monday morning, leading all three major dailies, even the Netanyahu-backing Israel Hayom.

Israel Hayom calls the news that he is under investigation “an earthquake, both in Rishon Lezion and in the coalition.” The news came just as Netanyahu announced that the police recommendations bill that Bitan had been going to war with cops over would not apply to him, and some grumblings have been heard about the suspicious timing of Bitan being hauled in front of investigators, but the papers are sure to separate the two stories, even if Bitan isn’t.

“How did NIS 2 million ($570,000) end up in your account,” reads the front page headline of tabloid Yedioth, summing up some of the main suspicions against Bitan.

“Bitan was interrogated Sunday morning on suspicion of bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust during his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion, a city near Tel Aviv,” Haaretz reports. “The suspects include senior officials at the Rishon Lezion municipality, well-known business people and a major organized crime figure from the Tel Aviv area who had previously been arrested in connection to cases involving serious violence. Law enforcement officials suspect that the municipal officials promoted the interests of a crime organization at a construction site in the city.”

While the other papers lead with the suspicions against Bitan, Israel Hayom — while not ignoring the suspicions — highlights the 13 hours he spent in the interrogation room (14 hours according to the other papers). The tabloid also plays up Bitan’s defense, quoting him telling his friends: “They’ve haven’t gotten enough of chasing me for a while already. They are bothering me, not letting me work. … I’m sick of this whole mess. I’m thinking about quitting the Knesset. The police are doing everything they can to create a case out of me because I am fighting them.”

Likud MK and coalition chairman David Bitan on December 4, 2017, after police questioning as part of a corruption investigation. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Even if the reports don’t directly connect the Bitan probe to the recommendations law, which would prevent police from recommending indictments in some cases, the pundits certainly have no problem drawing a line between them, including Nadav Eyal in Yedioth Ahronoth, who writes that the bill was about as illogical as the crime Bitan tried to get away with, and it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with crookedness.

“It wasn’t unaesthetic to bring Bitan in for interrogation the morning before the law was to be discussed. The things he is suspected of are much worse than the fake moaning on Twitter, and it was right for them to check into them without worrying about optics. The details revealed yesterday about millions of shekels in the bank account of a certain woman prove how much corruption isn’t only bad, but dumb,” he writes.

In Haaretz, meanwhile, columnist Gidi Weitz connects the story to Netanyahu and his own legal troubles by noting that if the suspicions prove to be correct, Bitan will be yet another in a long list of personages that the prime minister brought under his wing who turned out to be crooks.

“Netanyahu chose a man with a checkered history, who went bankrupt and was chased by gray market thugs, to be the head of his coalition,” Weitz writes. “When a man with a background like that gets into power, it won’t end with a good governance award.”

As for Netanyahu’s decision to back off of the police bill championed by Bitan, it’s the street that came out to protest Saturday night that’s given the award for that victory, but papers also advise against celebrating too soon.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against government corruption and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 2, 2017 in Tel Aviv (AFP/Oren Ziv)

“The fact that Netanyahu and his government did not quail at using legislation to benefit the prime minister is a betrayal of the public trust. Through their actions they demonstrated contempt for democracy. Netanyahu and his people went too far, and the public responded appropriately,” Haaretz’s lead editorial reads, though it adds that sponsor David Amsalem is still pushing ahead with Netanyahu’s blessing. “But the bill was born in sin. Instead of postponing the vote by a week, it should be buried.”

Similarly in Yedioth, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin crows that “the protest worked,” but notes that everyone can’t just pack up and go home, calling for the public to keep on keeping on and chiding earlier protests outside the attorney general’s house in Petah Tikva for being too political and too personal.

“We need to keep the protest of the people, sharp in its message and free of stains, and not something that turns into a personal matter,” he writes. “So I too, out of confidence in the rock of Israel in all its forms, in unity and in seeing a common goal of safeguarding Israel and keeping the Knesset free from corruption, hope this protest will continue.”

In another sign that the battle is not over, Israel Hayom columnist Akiva Bigman goes on full court press in favor of the bill, calling opposition to it “hypocritical.”

Columnist Haim Shine in the same paper seems to be okay with the bill being pushed off the agenda in favor of more ideological right-wing measures, though he still sees a need for it, blaming a media conspiracy for forcing it on the country and not the Likud lawmakers who assiduously pushed it.

“I suggest you don’t be naive and ignore the background noise that caused the law to be proposed. In Israel for several years there has been a weighty system, coordinated and orchestrated, mostly in the media, whose only objective has been to bring down the prime minister without going to the polls,” he writes. “I have no doubt that the public atmosphere influences the police, the prosecutors and the courts. Only a fringe few believe it’s possible to disconnect from the media atmosphere and the torture it advances without any regard. Thankfully for the country the amount of naive people in it is shrinking.”

If the placement of the Bitan story tells volumes about his fall from grace, the placement of an appearance by Jared Kushner at the Saban Forum Sunday speaks volumes about how little confidence Israelis actually have in efforts by US President Donald Trump’s administration that anything will move on either the peace talks or embassy transfer fronts. Though these were Kushner’s first ever real public remarks on the issue — and truth be told he did not say much of interest — all three papers bury their coverage fairly deep inside their pages, with Yedioth Ahronoth going so far as to run the news (or lack thereof) in a tiny box alongside a larger story about a tell-all on Trump’s love of Big Macs.

On Haaretz’s editorial page, Uzi Baram gives his opinion as to why nobody cares much what Kushner has to say: Trump is deceitful (though Netanyahu is worse).

“Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a leader not to be trusted one bit. You can never know if his statements stem from thought or an emotional whim. You can’t understand his moves, but you have to accept that a giant nation elected a leader with a grotesque personality for reasons that are hard to explain, perhaps because of the opponent he faced,” he writes.

“Benjamin Netanyahu is not Trump. He is wiser, smarter. He has better political judgment at home and abroad. But given the corruption investigations into him, Israelis get a leader worse than even Trump. In other words, you should never believe the prime minister’s word.”

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