Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a covert meeting on Thursday to discuss possible responses to a scandal involving Oren Hazan, a junior MK from his Likud party, after a judge determined the lawmaker took hard drugs prior to his election to the Knesset.
Judge Azaria Alcalay said Tuesday that a 2015 investigative TV report alleging Hazan hired prostitutes for his friends and taken crystal meth in 2013 while managing a casino in Bulgaria amounted to “responsible, serious journalism and reflected the reality as it was.”
Netanyahu met with coalition chairman David Bitan and the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yoav Horovitz, to consider possible moves against Hazan, which include suspending Hazan from the Knesset Finance Committee, banning him from submitting bills, forbidding him from making plenary speeches as a Likud representative, banning him from attending Likud meetings and — more harshly — even expelling him from the party altogether.
Channel 2 said that Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a senior Likudnik who addressed the meeting by phone, expressed concern over dropping Hazan from the party and having the coalition lose a vote.
Levin stressed that taking action against Hazan would mean weakening the 65-MK coalition. He said the prime minister must consider a situation in which Hazan could destabilize the government if the relatively narrow coalition were weakened. Levin reportedly advised that given the political implications, Netanyahu should wait to take action.
Other participants at the meeting, however, argued for the most serious measures possible against Hazan. They said the MK caused damage to the Likud even before the court ruling, given his conduct since he entered the Knesset.
Nonetheless, Channel 2 said, the meeting ended with the growing possibility that despite the anger towards him, the party would hold off on taking any steps against Hazan. Levin also pointed out that Hazan could appeal the judge’s ruling.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, said Thursday that Hazan was unfit to hold public office and chided Netanyahu for not taking action against him.
“This is not an affair that honors the Knesset of Israel or the public’s trust in elected officials,” Bennett told Army Radio. “I believe that Knesset members should serve as an example.”
While calls for the freshman lawmaker to step down or be investigated have proliferated in the opposition and among backbench MKs, Bennett became the first senior government official to call for Hazan’s ouster.
“As public officials, I believe that we must disassociate ourselves from individuals who were determined to have committed immoral acts that are illegal in Israel,” he said, urging Netanyahu to rethink whether Hazan should be able to continue to serve in the Knesset.
“The law doesn’t allow us to force him [to resign] because no criminal offenses were committed in Israel, but it is the responsibility of the head of the party to deal with this issue,” he said.
Though Bennett said he would refrain from giving Netanyahu advice, he said the details of Hazan’s conduct confirmed by the Tuesday ruling “should be a red flag to all of us.”
“This is not the kind of standard we want to set, especially for young people who look up us,” he said.
As the head of the senior coalition partner, Bennett has often sparred with Netanyahu and was quick to criticize the prime minister over a litany of issues, including most recently the government’s failure to deal with the threat of Hamas tunnels emanating from Gaza.
Hazan — whose previous behavior led to his removal from Knesset panels by both the Knesset Ethics Committee and his own party — had sought NIS 1 million (some $260,000) in damages from Channel 2 reporter Amit Segal, claiming the June 2015 report detailing tawdry and illicit activities by Hazan when he managed a Bulgarian casino in 2013 was false and constituted libel.
Segal cited two Israeli tourists and a casino employee who affirmed that Hazan provided prostitutes for his guests in the Burgas casino, in which he held a stake. Both prostitution and hard-drug use are illegal in Bulgaria.
On Tuesday, Judge Alcalay said that evidence brought before the court by two witnesses, named in the ruling as Eviatar and Avi, proved that Hazan had indeed taken crystal meth. He said that it could not be proved that Hazan provided prostitutes to friends or customers of the casino but that he was convinced Segal had sufficient evidence to be protected under freedom of the press.
“I believed the testimony of Eviatar and Avi over that of the plaintiff — who completely denied that he had taken drugs, just as he denied he any connection to the casino — after it was clear that he had given false testimony on other issues,” Alcalay wrote in his decision.
The court, however, accepted Hazan’s complaint that Channel 2 was wrong to report he has sold hard drugs, a detail that only appeared on the outlet’s Mako website and not in the initial report. Channel 2 was ordered to pay Hazan NIS 40,000 in damages.
Hazan, an outspoken lawmaker whose indecorous behavior has invited criticism and calls for him to step down in the past, denied the allegations at the time of the report and declared that he had “been victorious” following the libel suit ruling.
In December, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Hazan from participating in parliamentary debates for a month, due to a series of complaints against him.
In February, Hazan was again suspended from the committee hearings, this time by Likud after he skipped a plenum vote resulting in a loss for the party.
And a 2015 state comptroller report on party spending during primary campaigns said Hazan failed to report his expenditure and accused him of lying in an affidavit declaring his expenses, a crime that can carry up to a three-year custodial sentence.
He was also roundly criticized by fellow lawmakers for appearing to mock disabled MK Karin Elharar from the Knesset floor during a December plenum vote.