The Knesset's (alleged) Hall of Shame

As parliament ends its winter session, at least eight MKs are facing police or legal battles.

knesset dirty 224 (photo credit: )
knesset dirty 224
(photo credit: )
At the close of the winter session of the 17th Knesset this week, some members may have a bit more on their minds than meeting voters and pending legislation. At least eight MKs, The Jerusalem Post has confirmed, currently face investigation or graver legal proceedings. Several more are also known to have been under investigation, but the police were unwilling to discuss the status of those probes. Earlier this week, MK Shlomo Benizri (Shas) made the legal jump from defendant to convict and is now fighting to keep his Knesset seat, but he is far from alone in the line-up of lawmakers who are, or are likely to be, dividing their time between Knesset battles and battles with the police and the courts. "We warned a while ago, during the Nomi Blumenthal affair [in which the former Likud MK was convicted of corruption], that the Knesset was becoming a shelter for criminals," said Shuki Levanon, spokesman for the Movement for Quality Government. "It's too bad that we're only seeing an increase in this phenomenon." "Of course this has an effect on Israel's democracy," added Levanon. "If this is the personal level of the people who are supposed to set examples for the citizens, then there really isn't much to say." Avraham Hirchson (Kadima) is suspected of pocketing funds from the National Workers' Union during the time that he served as its head. The former finance minister left his cabinet post in July 2007 - but not his Knesset seat - after a protracted deliberation in which he first suspended himself. In September, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz concluded that police had gathered sufficient evidence to indict Hirchson on charges including fraud and theft, pending a hearing that would be held prior to the official indictment. Although six months have passed, the hearing has yet to take place. Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) was indicted in August 2006 on a long list of charges including fraud, breach of trust, election bribery, providing false testimony and lying under oath, following a year-and-a-half-long criminal investigation. On the same day that Mazuz decided to indict the former public security minister, Hanegbi waived his right to parliamentary immunity. Hanegbi allegedly made 80 political appointments to the Environmental Protection Ministry between 2001 and 2003 while he was the Likud's environmental affairs minister. Hanegbi's trial has yet to begin, but he and his legal team say that in any case, there was nothing wrong with the appointments made during his administration. In January, the National Fraud Squad announced that it had concluded its investigation into Absorption Minister and Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee Ya'acov Edri, also of Kadima, and was turning Edri's file over to the district attorney's office. Police recommended that prosecutors indict him for breach of trust and accepting a bribe. Edri allegedly worked, while serving as the assistant public security minister, to promote a police officer in exchange for receiving a large quantity of New Year's greeting cards - a deal that allegedly fell through. Only last week, Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila (Kadima) was interrogated by National Fraud Squad detectives over suspicions that she and MK Eli Aflalo (Kadima) traveled abroad at the expense of powerful agricultural company Agrexco, despite having been instructed not to do so by the Knesset Ethics Committee. Aflalo was questioned, but is not a suspect. The criminal investigation into the allegations has been open since early fall 2006. The chairman of the Kadima Party, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, received a tentative respite in late November when the Israel Police announced that they did not think that they had sufficient evidence to support allegations that he had acted in violation of the public confidence in the Bank Leumi affair. There are, however, two criminal investigations and one preliminary police probe still open against the prime minister: In April 2007, Mazuz approved a criminal investigation into allegations that Olmert received favorable terms for the purchase of his home on Jerusalem's Rehov Cremieux in return for helping the contractor who sold it to him. In October of that year, Mazuz opened a second criminal investigation into allegations of cronyism while Olmert led an investment center operated by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry; political appointments by Olmert via the Small and Medium Business Authority; and political appointments by Olmert throughout the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. The third probe is examining the decision by the Investment Center to grant an "approved industry" status to Silicat Industries, Inc., which was represented by Olmert's former law partner and close friend, Uri Messer - a decision that saved the company $11 million as well as entitling it to a series of government benefits. MKs from other parties are also suspected of wrongdoing. Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman has been under investigation for nearly a decade. In 2006, police recommended closing the file against the then-strategic affairs minister, which had examined claims of alleged illegal connections overseas and for irregularities in funding during the 1999 election. In January 2008, the National Fraud Squad said that it was investigating claims that Lieberman was fraudulently involved in private business deals in 2001, during the time he served as national infrastructures minister. Last week, the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court denied Lieberman's request to prevent authorities from using documents seized at his attorney's office as part of an investigation against him. Lieberman has repeatedly denied all of the allegations against him, and has complained that he is being targeted for political reasons. Shlomo Benizri was convicted earlier this week in the Jerusalem District Court on charges of accepting bribes, breach of faith, obstructing justice and conspiracy to commit a crime. The Shas MK, who said that he wanted to suspend himself but was unwilling to quit the Knesset altogether, maintains his innocence and says he will appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision. The state announced that in sentencing the former labor and welfare minister, it would ask the district court to determine that the crimes for which he was found guilty involved moral turpitude, which - if upheld - would necessitate his suspension from the Knesset until the Supreme Court appeal. The investigation, launched in 2001, probed claims that Benizri illegally aided contractor Moshe Sela on a number of occasions in exchange for benefits. Criminal acts allegedly committed by MKs are not limited to irregularities in their financial dealings. Yitzhak Ziv (Gil Pensioners), a deputy speaker of the Knesset, has been under investigation since July for allegedly sexually assaulting a party activist a year earlier. The case was assigned to the National Economic Crimes Unit, whose detectives took a statement from "Resh," the woman who filed the complaint against Ziv. Resh later underwent a polygraph exam in which she was found to be telling the truth. Ziv, who was questioned by investigators in October, has dismissed the allegations against him as motivated by "political revenge." The eight listed above are only those for whom the status of the proceedings against them could be confirmed. A handful of others - among them Yisrael Katz (Likud), Haim Amsalem (Shas) and Ahmed Tibi (UAL) - have also been investigated in the past few years by police or money laundering authorities, but police were unwilling to confirm the current status of the investigations against them. Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.