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Knesset rejects inquiry into justice system after cover-up claim

Most Likud lawmakers skip vote on Yamina proposal for committee to explore allegations that cops papered over alleged conflict of interest to protect Netanyahu probes

Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a Knesset plenary session at the Knesset, on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a Knesset plenary session at the Knesset, on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

The Knesset rejected Wednesday an opposition lawmaker’s proposal to form a parliamentary inquiry into Israel’s legal system prompted by an allegation that law enforcement officials covered up a conflict of interest in order to protect an investigation into the prime minister.

Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich, the bill’s author, called for the panel after a television report last week alleged that officers had quashed concerns about an investigator being romantically linked to the sister of a suspect wrapped up in corruption probes against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearing it could undermine the cases.

Allies of Netanyahu have seized on the report as proof of a law enforcement plot to unseat him from power.

Forty-seven MKs opposed the proposal and six supported it. Most lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party, who may have supported the measure but not the opposition, skipped the vote.

Smotrich’s proposal had threatened to set off a coalition row between Likud and its coalition partner Blue and White, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Last week Knesset Speaker Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud said he backed the committee, telling Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn in the Knesset plenum that, “Our stance is clear, that this matter must be probed.”

Nissenkorn, of Blue and White, meanwhile warned Likud against supporting the bill and said such allegations could be dealt with in court.

The coalition infighting was similar to a showdown between Likud and Blue and White over a similar proposal by Smotrich earlier this year that called to probe judges’ conflicts of interest.

Under the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal, the sides are not supposed to promote contentious legislation without their joint consent, and the Likud-backed effort at the time to push through the proposal to investigate the justices, bitterly opposed by Blue and White, could potentially have led to the collapse of the government a mere two months after it was established.

The earlier proposal was defeated with 54 lawmakers voting against and 43 in favor. Netanyahu and a number of Likud lawmakers were not present for that vote on the proposal, despite the party’s backing for it.

In its report last Monday, Channel 12 news said senior law enforcement officials had filed a complaint alleging that Superintendent Avi Rotenberg, the chief investigator into allegations that the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, misspent public funds for her personal benefit, did not disclose to his superiors in 2016 that he was in an extramarital relationship with Judy Nir-Mozes.

Nir-Mozes is the sister of Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, who has been charged together with the prime minister in Case 2000. According to prosecutors, Mozes and Netanyahu negotiated a deal by which Mozes would ease the paper’s criticism of Netanyahu, who in exchange would push rules to weaken the circulation of rival tabloid Israel Hayom. Netanyahu was charged with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes faces bribery charges.

Netanyahu, who is charged in two other cases, has denied accusations in all three, alleging he is a victim of a conspiracy by the press, law enforcement and the legal system to unseat him.

In June 2019, Sara Netanyahu was convicted of misusing public funds as part of a plea deal in a case involving allegations she illegally procured and then misreported catering services at the Prime Minister’s Residence.

The TV report showed internal police documents purportedly revealing that when confronted about rumors of his relationship, Rotenberg denied them and said there was no conflict of interest, potentially giving him access to Case 2000 materials.

Netanyahu called the news report “shocking” and an “atom bomb” that proved the corruption cases against him were a conspiracy. He also called for an independent investigation into the allegations in the TV report.

Former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan, cited in the TV reports of a cover-up, on Thursday dismissed the accusations and accused Netanyahu of lying to the public.

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