Likud MK Oren Hazan threatened to dig up and disseminate dirt about Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday, after the latter suspended him from serving as deputy Knesset speaker until further notice.
Edelstein made the move following a Channel 2 report that Hazan had managed a casino in Burgas, Bulgaria, pimping prostitutes and providing crystal meth to Israeli tourists.
The Knesset speaker discussed the situation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then met with Hazan, telling the MK that if he does not suspend himself from the deputy Knesset speaker position, Edelstein would take action. The speaker also advised Hazan to “take five polygraph tests” to prove his innocence.
Soon afterward, Hazan wrote on Twitter that he would leave the Knesset early on Tuesday to see his lawyers – making it sound like it would be a onetime absence, and not like he would resign or take a break as deputy Knesset speaker.
Edelstein then instructed the Knesset Secretariat not to assign Hazan any shifts as deputy speaker until further notice.
A Knesset speaker does not have the authority to fire a deputy from the position officially, though 61 MKs can vote to do so. However, Edelstein’s orders effectively suspended Hazan from the job.
Hours later, Hazan called Edelstein’s personal phone number and had his assistant threaten that the MK would dig up scandalous stories about the speaker and release them to the press.
As for the practicalities of Hazan’s punishment, at Edelstein’s request, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) agreed to have an opposition MK “offset” Hazan’s absence until further notice, in support of the speaker’s efforts to restore the Knesset’s dignity. “Offsetting” is a practice in the Knesset whereby an MK skips a vote so the absence of a lawmaker on the other side of the aisle doesn’t count.
Herzog’s political rival, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich, came out against his decision, saying that “Netanyahu and the Likud should have to live with the embarrassment and the disgrace. There’s no need for the opposition to clean up after them.”
On Tuesday morning, Hazan unequivocally denied the Channel 2 segment’s allegations and threatened to sue the TV station and its political reporter Amit Segal for reporting them.
On Monday night, Channel 2 News broadcast an investigative report, following up on a report from earlier this year that Hazan had managed the Sunny Beach Casino in the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas and had not simply worked in a hotel that happened to have a casino, as the MK had claimed.
Israeli tourists who said they had visited the casino told Segal and others that they had done crystal meth with Hazan while there, and that the now-MK had hired prostitutes for them from a nearby strip club called Red Roses.
The report featured a recording of a phone call with a man saying he was Hazan’s driver, who said he would drive to Red Roses and ask for “good-looking girls with big tits” to bring back to the casino.
There was also a video of a woman who Segal said was the “madam” of Red Roses, in which she called Hazan “Oren the Big Boss,” corroborated the stories of him bringing women to the casino, and giggled when she was told that the “big boss” was now in politics.
On Tuesday morning, Hazan called the report “detestable, baseless lies,” and had his attorney send a pre-lawsuit warning letter to Channel 2 and Segal. “I say this unequivocally: There were no drugs. There was no pimping women,” he said.
Hazan – whose father, former MK Yehiel Hazan, was convicted of double-voting on a bill in 2003 – blamed the media, “which has yet to accept the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s victory.”
He said it was “amazing to what level reporters, anchors, editors and producers are willing to stoop.”
“I came to the Knesset to do important things for the people of Israel and the Land of Israel. I won’t let anyone sway me from my path,” he added.
In an interview with Army Radio, Hazan said he did not know any of the people or recognize the places in the Channel 2 report, and added that he would be willing to undergo a polygraph test.
As for photographs of him surrounded by scantily-clad women, Hazan said that Channel 2 had gotten them from his Facebook page, that the women were his friends, and that if he had been doing something illegal, he wouldn’t have put the pictures online.
Meanwhile, Likud officials furiously worked on finding a way to remove Hazan from the Knesset as of Tuesday evening, hoping to pass a proposal to lower the number of votes needed to remove a lawmaker’s immunity from 61 to a simple majority. Once Hazan’s immunity is revoked, he can be put on trial.
Even though the alleged actions all took place abroad, Hazan can face criminal charges if the State Attorney’s Office decides it is in the public interest to prosecute him and is able to gather sufficient evidence from Bulgaria.
An MK can be forced to leave the Knesset only if he is convicted of a crime with moral turpitude. However, the Knesset Ethics Committee, which has not been reinstated since the election, can suspend him from all activities except voting.
If Hazan leaves the Knesset, next on the Likud’s list is Sharren Haskel.
A senior Likud source called for Hazan to step down from his membership in legislative committees, including the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Finance Committee, until his innocence is proven.
The Likud source called the story an embarrassment and said he had long ago told Hazan – who has gained a reputation as the class clown of the Knesset – that he should lower his profile, but that he hadn’t.
MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List), chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, said she was shocked by the reports and praised Edelstein’s decision.
“Public representatives must meet a moral standard. The serious accusation of soliciting prostitutes cannot be connected to an MK’s name. Prostitution shamefully takes advantage of the weakest members of our society... and has an impact on the way society views women and their job in society.
Therefore, it simply cannot be that an MK, who is supposed to set an example for others, is involved in it,” she stated.
Ruth Resnick, chairwoman of NGO No 2 Violence Against Women, demanded Hazan’s immediate suspension until an investigation of the pimping allegations was complete, and said that if Hazan turned out to be guilty, he should be removed from the Knesset.
Channel 1 News reported that when Hazan was elected, the Bulgarian Embassy in Israel had asked Edelstein’s office to ensure that Hazan not be involved in any ties between the country’s parliament and the Knesset.
A Knesset source confirmed a Channel 1 report that the Bulgarian Embassy had hinted it would prefer if Hazan were not involved in relations between its parliament and the Knesset.