Police question coalition chair Bitan in mass arrest of senior officals

Likud MK David Bitan is accused of accepting a bribe during his time as chairman of Rishon Lezion's zoning board.

DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year
Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) was questioned on Sunday for more than 13 hours at Lahav 433 unit headquarters in Lod as part of a corruption investigation following allegations of bribery in the Rishon Lezion Municipality.
Along with Bitan, the Israel Police arrested 17 senior officials in the Rishon Lezion Municipality, businessmen, contractors and organized-crime figures. The officials are suspected of corruption and were arrested as part of a covert operation aimed at revealing the connections between criminal elements, local municipalities and national governmental structures.
Among those arrested was Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Zur, who is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Coalition chairman David Bitan after being questioned by police in suspicion of corruption while serving as Mayor of Rishon Lezion, December 3, 2017. (Avshalom Shoshani)
Media reports said Bitan is suspected of bribery charges and money laundering.
Bitan was reportedly asked about deals that took place while he was Rishon Lezion’s deputy mayor and also about moves he made that benefited organized-crime group members while he was a Knesset member to help him erase debts to the “gray market.”
Reports said there are concerns regarding his part in property sales in the city. He is accused of accepting money from unidentified businessmen – who were allegedly sent to cover for an organized-crime group member – in return for green-lighting construction projects, including in an area called the” 1000 compound” in western Rishon Lezion.
It was then reported that some NIS 2 million was found in a bank account of Bitan’s close relative.
Police reportedly have incriminating evidence against Bitan that includes recordings and documents.
Bitan is expected to be questioned on Wednesday.
Bitan was quoted by Channel 2 News as saying he will consider handing in his resignation over the probes.
“It is a while that they won’t stop chasing me,” he was quoted as saying. “They won’t let me work,” he said. “When they couldn’t find a flaw in my work, they started looking for my family… I am tired of all this mess. I am considering resigning from the Knesset.”
“The police is doing everything to criminalize me because I’m fighting them,” Bitan added.
The questioning took place amid efforts to pass controversial legislation  that Bitan is advancing to curb the police’s ability to publish its recommendation to the state prosecutor after investigations are completed.
Bitan's lawyer, Efraim Damari, said that the MK "cooperated fully with the police. He answered all the questions presented to him, believes in the law enforcement system, and intends to continue to cooperate with the investigators in his next questioning on Wednesday."
Likud MK David Amsalem released a statement saying that an “army” of politicians and the media are trying to “bring down” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The Israel Police should investigate every complaint and anything that comes to it,” he said. “But what would have happened if they had been interrogating Bitan for another two days? Someone here is trying to torpedo the legislation.”
Police spokeswoman Merav Lapidot dismissed claims about the timing of Bitan’s questioning.
“There is no connection between the two, and whoever thinks that way does not understand how an investigation is conducted,” she told Army Radio.
“This investigation started over a year ago – long before anyone even dreamed about the ‘recommendations bill,’” she said. “We set a date for this questioning a long, long time ago.”
Channel 2 News reported that the Attorney-General’s Office confirmed that the date of Bitan’s questioning was set more than a month ago regardless of the proposed legislation.