Coalition whip MK David Bitan announced Wednesday he would leave the powerful parliamentary role but retain his Knesset seat as he grapples with a wide-ranging police investigation into suspected bribery, fraud, money laundering and breach of trust.
“This morning I asked the prime minister to release me from my role as chairman of the coalition,” Bitan said in a statement.
“The current situation,” he added, a reference to the corruption probe, “hampers my work.” He said he didn’t want to get in the way of the coalition by attempting to juggle his professional demands with those of managing his legal defense.
Bitan, an outspoken defender of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the face of the premier’s own corruption probes, is suspected of having taken bribes from organized crime figures in Rishon Lezion after he became deputy mayor of the city in 2005, of allegedly rigging a municipal construction tender in favor of the son of an acquaintance in exchange for money, and other alleged offenses.
Likud MK David Amsalem was appointed the new coalition chairman.
Amsalem is the author of the so-called police recommendations bill, which is up for its final votes next Monday.
Bitan has been questioned three times by police at the Lahav 433 national crime unit headquarters in Lod, each session lasting several hours.
Netanyahu has reciprocated the support, publicly backing Bitan, including in comments earlier this month while on an official visit to Paris in which he insisted that Bitan enjoys “the presumption of innocence.”
“I respect him, and I really like him,” Netanyahu told reporters. “He’s doing excellent work as coalition whip.”
“I thank the prime minister for his faith and support along the way,” Bitan said in the statement. “I will continue to honorably carry out my duties as a member of Knesset for the Likud party, and I will do all I can to continue to represent the public that put its faith in me.”
By remaining a lawmaker, Bitan retains his parliamentary immunity.
The investigation, dubbed by police “Case 1803,” has seen the arrests of dozens of suspects, including Rishon Lezion city officials, local businessmen, and organized crime figures.
His resignation comes with Netanyahu himself facing two ongoing corruption investigations into him and opposition calls for his resignation.
On Tuesday Netanyahu downplayed the effects of a likely police recommendation to the attorney general that charges be pressed against him.
“If there will be recommendations [to indict] — so what?” Netanyahu told a rally of Likud members. “These recommendations will be thrown aside and will end with nothing. And I say this for a simple reason: There will be nothing because there was nothing,” he said.
Netanyahu is a suspect in two corruption investigations, known as cases 1000 and 2000.
In the first, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
The prime minister has been questioned seven times by police, most recently on Friday.