(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Failed Jerusalem mayoral candidate and current member of the Jerusalem City Council, Moshe Lion, was questioned for several hours on Sunday in connection to the massive corruption case that has shaken the Yisrael Beytenu party over the past few days.
Lion, the one-time head of the Prime Minister’s Office whose 2013 mayoral bid in the capital was engineered by Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, was released on house arrest for five days while a local council head brought in for questioning Sunday was released with no conditions.
Lion’s media adviser put out a statement Sunday night saying that Lion “was questioned over the course of the day and cooperated fully with the investigation the entire time.
The investigators treated him in a practical and fair manner and Lion agreed with their request that he be placed on house arrest.”
The two men were questioned at the same time that several other suspects were brought to court for the second time since the case first broke Wednesday morning.
Zion Zuaretz, a businessman, and Yitzhak Burba, an official from the Union of Local Authorities, were ordered kept in custody until Thursday by the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s court. Advertising executive Alex Goldstein and Efi Peles, an official with the Samaria Development Organization, had their remands extended by two days. Gabi Hemo, head of the nongovernmental organization Midreshet Hagolan and Michael Chidziva, from the anti-drugs NGO Me’al Ha’sam, were released on house arrest.
A further 18 suspects remain in custody and eight others have been released under house arrest.
Zuaretz and Burba are linked to a case – one of 15 that make up the corruption investigation – in which Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum was allegedly funneled some NIS 400,000 as “commission” from a budgetary stipend of around NIS 1.5 million sent to the Tamar Regional Council.
According to police, the Yisrael Beytenu MK is the prime suspect and the linchpin of the large-scale corruption case in which tenders and budgets were sent to local authorities and NGOs on the initiative of Kirschenbaum and other associates and politicians from Yisrael Beytenu, with a percentage of the funds later kicked back up the chain to Kirschenbaum and her co-conspirators.
Police suspect that in a number of cases, the bodies that received funds agreed to give jobs to people close to the Yisrael Beytenu officials involved in the scheme.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the allegations a “planned and well timed” operation orchestrated to take place right in the middle of the election campaign.
Liberman, the head of Yisrael Beytenu, made his comment to reporters before the weekly cabinet meeting. He said the timing of the arrests and questioning of leading party functionaries raised many questions. He predicted there would be additional arrests, accompanied by more leaks, until the very end of the campaign.
The foreign minister said the Jerusalem prosecutor’s office has asked the Jerusalem Labor Court to put off until after the elections a lawsuit involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former housekeeper Manny Naftali. But Liberman wondered why the same principle – the need to be very sensitive in dealing with legal proceedings during an election campaign – did not apply to his party as well.
“On the contrary, when it comes to Yisrael Beytenu, there is a pressure to speed up and widen the investigation [during the campaign],” he said. “I know and respect State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, and I hope to hear a satisfactory explanation.”
Liberman specifically asked what was the urgency in arresting and investigating David Godovsky, Kirschenbaum’s chief of staff, and Tamar Regional Council head Dov Litvinoff.
“Has David Godovsky suddenly become a ticking time-bomb?” he asked. “Was Dov Litvinoff about to sell Israel’s airplane secrets to the Iranians?” The Movement for Quality Government in Israel issued a statement in response to Liberman’s comments, saying it was “shameful” that instead of sharply condemning the grave allegations against leading functionaries in his party, the Yisrael Beytenu leader lashed out against the law enforcement apparatus.
“There is no good time for corruption or the war against it which has to be continuous and determined,” the statement said. “It is good that law enforcement officials did not let early elections prevent the enforcement of the law.”
Leaders of other political parties continued on Sunday to remain silent about the Yisrael Beytenu scandal and party chairman Avigdor Liberman’s potential role in it.
When asked about Liberman on Channel 2, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said, “He has not been probed or accused of anything.”
Labor head Isaac Herzog appeared to make a point of not mentioning Liberman in his first remarks about the corruption scandal.
“I won’t address the scandal beyond supporting the law enforcement authorities,” Herzog said at an event at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. “Corruption must be eliminated from the root. That will be our national mission.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.