Coalition chairman David Bitan was questioned by police on Sunday morning, hours after 17 Rishon Lezion city officials, including the mayor, were arrested as part of a widening corruption probe into suspected bribe-taking.
The probe broke open just as Bitan, a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was heavily involved in pushing through a bill seen by critics as designed to protect Netanyahu from his own fraud investigations.
Likud MK David Amsalem, the author of the bill that would forbid police from issuing recommendations about indictments when it concludes an investigation into a high-profile personage, questioned the timing of Bitan being grilled by police. The bill is slated to come up for its final vote on Monday.
“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.”
At least 17 employees of the Rishon Lezion municipality were arrested Sunday morning as part of the probe, police said.
Mayor Dov Zur is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and of promoting certain construction projects in the city together with contractors. His remand was extended Sunday for five days.
They did not immediately confirm that Bitan had been questioned by the police’s anti-fraud unit, though Deputy Commissioner Meni Yitzhaki, the Israel Police’s top investigations officer, earlier notified Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that police sought to question him.
The investigation is reportedly tied to suspicions Bitan used his position as chair of the planning and construction committee on the city council to settle debts incurred during his time running the city’s soccer team.
Police said the Sunday wave of arrests included several top municipality officials in Rishon Lezion. It 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 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 would need his help in his city council positions.
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. The decision to notify Edelstein suggests Bitan may be questioned under caution and is likely to be a suspect in the case.
Bitan is currently at the forefront of an effort to push through a bill that would keep police from making recommendations to the prosecution on criminal charges, or from publicizing those charges in certain cases.
The legislation has been derided by critics as an attempt to shield Netanyahu, under investigation in two separate corruption cases, from public scrutiny and a possible indictment.