Likud seethes as Zionist Union unveils anti-corruption platform

Likud seethes as Zionist Union unveils anti-corruption platform

If elected, opposition vows to pass laws forcing public officials to step down if indicted, cap premier’s terms to 8 years

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Labor chairman Avi Gabbay speaks at press conference of the Zionist Union party, presenting the plan against the government corruption, at the Israeli parliament on December 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor chairman Avi Gabbay speaks at press conference of the Zionist Union party, presenting the plan against the government corruption, at the Israeli parliament on December 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Zionist Union on Wednesday unveiled a new anti-corruption platform, drawing an angry response from the governing Likud party, which accused chairman Avi Gabbay of failing to root out corruption within his faction’s own ranks.

The platform by the Zionist Union, an amalgam of Gabbay’s Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah parties, pledged to cap the terms of premiers, toughen corruption sentences and advance reforms to expedite police investigations in corruption and breach of trust cases.

It said, should it be voted into power, it would pass a law forcing public servants — including prime ministers — to step down if they are indicted. Currently, public officials may remain in office unless they are convicted of crimes that involve moral turpitude.

The party also pledged to roll back the so-called police recommendations bill and political appointments legislation being advanced by the governing coalition, and promised it would safeguard the role’s of Israel’s courts, police, and ombudsman. It also said it would step up transparency requirements and protect whistleblowers, among other measures.

The opposition party’s proposal comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being investigated in two separate corruption probes, while Likud’s coalition chairman David Bitan is being probed in a separate case on suspicions including bribery and breach of trust.

It also comes as the government presses forward with legislation to prevent police from handing over their recommendations to prosecutors on the evidential basis for indictments in high-profile cases. Two anti-corruption protests in Tel Aviv over the past two weeks have drawn thousands of demonstrators. (The opposition Yesh Atid party, which is also jockeying to replace Netanyahu’s Likud in the next election, has previously released its own anti-corruption plan.)

During a press conference on Wednesday morning, Gabbay linked the program to recent events.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with MK David Bitan during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, November 27, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“If every meeting to advance the corruption bills was a red alert, the siren wouldn’t stop over the past months, and the noise would have made us deaf,” said Gabbay. “The alternative we are presenting here is by people who understand the root of the problem and are aiming to treat the roots of corruption rather than the symptoms.”

Also speaking at the conference, the Zionist Union’s Livni said Netanyahu has admitted to receiving expensive gifts, and the public therefore need not withhold judgment on his guilt.

Netanyahu is being investigated on suspicions of accepting pricey gifts from billionaire benefactors and an alleged quid-pro-quo deal with a newspaper publisher, in two separate cases. The prime minister denies all the charges against him. In the first case, he has maintained the gifts were “trifles” exchanged between friends, according to leaks from the investigation.

“The prime minister may have the legal presumption of innocence, but he does not have the public presumption of innocence, after he admitted to receiving gifts from the wealthy,” she said.

The Likud party hit back swiftly.

“Before Avi Gabbay presents a plan to reduce corruption in Israel, he ought to first publicize a plan to reduce corruption within his own party,” the party said in a statement.

The Likud statement referred to a former Labor staffer for opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was set to stand trial over primaries donations. It slammed Herzog’s “silence” during the investigation into former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s primaries donations in 2002-2006 (the case was closed without charges). It also called on Gabbay, a former Bezeq telecommunications CEO, “to offer explanations on the five days of house arrest under which he was personally investigated in the Bezeq case.”

Gabbay, along with several other Bezeq officials, were questioned under caution by police in 2005 and sent to house arrest in a case involving the alleged purchasing of a competitor’s internal documents. No charges were filed.

“For those who thought that leftist Gabbay’s impersonation of a right-winger was his best joke, here he goes and surprises us with his impersonation of a champion of the rule of law,” Likud said.

Gabbay, a former Kulanu minister who served in Netanyahu’s government before resigning angrily in 2016, has vowed to replace the Likud in the next election after winning the Labor leadership in July. In an apparent effort to woo right-wing voters, Gabbay has since made a number of comments at odds with Labor’s historically dovish stances, saying settlements would not be evacuated under a future peace deal and a united Jerusalem was more important than clinching an accord with the Palestinians.

The Zionist Union responded to Likud on Wednesday afternoon, saying the official who was set to be tried “resigned on the day they announced the intention to indict him.”

“Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud don’t fight corruption, only those who are fighting corruption,” it added.

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