Several coalition lawmakers, including prominent defenders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cried foul Sunday over the timing of the revelation of a year-long graft and organized crime investigation surrounding coalition whip MK David Bitan.
Bitan was questioned by police on Sunday morning, hours after 17 Rishon Lezion city officials were arrested as part of a widening corruption probe into suspected bribe-taking.
The probe broke open just as Bitan, a key Netanyahu ally, was working to gather the votes for the final vote Monday on a bill that would forbid police from issuing recommendations about indictments when they conclude an investigation into a high-profile personage.
The bill is seen by critics as designed to protect Netanyahu from his multiple fraud investigations.
Likud MK David Amsalem, the original author of the bill, slammed the police announcement as an attempt to topple Netanyahu.
“What’s happening here is very serious,” Amsalem said Sunday. “There’s a vast army that includes the entire political system and media which is trying to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israel Police must investigate every complaint and every [suspicion] it finds, but couldn’t Bitan have been questioned in two days? Someone is trying to torpedo this legislation.”
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin also commented on the timing, telling Army Radio in a Sunday morning interview that “I was very surprised by the way the story developed this morning. The timing, the look of the thing, are very problematic.”
Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich echoed the sentiment, saying in a sarcastic public statement: “If there’s one person who believes the publicizing of an investigation into coalition whip David Bitan this morning isn’t connected to the vote on the recommendations bill, raise your hand.”
The police announcement did not immediately freeze the vote. The Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, chaired by Amsalem, met on schedule to consider final amendments before Monday’s scheduled final votes.
But the bill may yet be delayed by opposition filibustering through the Knesset’s time-honored “objections” process. Opposition lawmakers can file an unlimited number of objections to each article in the bill, which then must be taken up for debate in the Knesset plenum. The objections can only be stopped by the Knesset speaker and Knesset House Committee imposing time limits on the debates, a step taken only when there is broad agreement on a bill’s urgency.
The Kulanu party filed its first objection to the bill Sunday morning, with MK Merav Ben-Ari proposing an amendment that would delay its going into force by three months in order to allow police to finish their investigations into the corruption allegations surrounding Netanyahu.
In Rishon Lezion, police said at least 17 municipality employees, including several top officials, were arrested Sunday morning.
Bitan himself was called to the Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit’s headquarters in Lod for questioning. Deputy Commissioner Meni Yitzhaki, the Israel Police’s top investigations officer, earlier notified Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that police sought to question the coalition whip.
The investigation is reportedly tied to suspicions Bitan used his position as chair of the planning and construction committee on the Rishon Lezion city council between 2008 and 2010 to settle debts incurred during his time running the city’s soccer team.
Police said the Sunday wave of arrests was carried out with the approval of the country’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
It marks the tail end of a year-long secret probe into the affair that police officials are characterizing as an organized crime investigation.
From 2001 to 2008, Bitan reportedly incurred some NIS 7 million in debts connected to his management of the Hapoel Rishon Lezion soccer team, which was then owned by the city.
Much of the money was allegedly owed to shady loan sharks, according to media investigative reports.
From 2008 to 2010, after leaving Hapoel Rishon Lezion, Bitan chaired the planning and construction committee on the city council, a position that gave him significant influence over zoning policy and construction decisions in Israel’s fourth-largest city.
In 2010, police opened an investigation into Bitan’s financial dealings, including the suspicion that his outstanding debts from his Hapoel days were covered by contractors and other businesspeople operating in Rishon who needed his help in influencing city council decisions.
Bitan has flatly denied any wrongdoing, and the 2010 investigation was closed without charges.
Bitan is protected by parliamentary immunity that can only be lifted with the approval of the speaker and the Knesset House Committee.