Out of the Israeli Public Eye, Into the Israeli Public’s Pocket

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Alex Wiznitzer Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Alex Wiznitzer, a former CEO of the government roadwork company Netivei Israel and former chairman of the Mekorot Water Company, was arrested Monday on suspicion of taking bribes in a corruption case centered on the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lobbyist Yisrael Yehoshua was arrested along with him. Last year, both men were questioned repeatedly by the police, but generally exercised their right to remain silent.

Two other key suspects in the case behaved similarly: former MK Faina Kirshenbaum, once the most powerful person in the party after founder Avigdor Lieberman, and the party’s former chief of staff, David Godovsky.

The suspects allegedly channeled huge amounts of government money – whose disbursement was controlled by Yisrael Beiteinu under its coalition agreements – to various local authorities and NGOs, in exchange for jobs for relatives and friends and fat fees. The fees were divided between the middlemen and those elected or appointed to serve the public.

The investigation, which began almost two years ago, involved from the outset two state witnesses whose identities remain under gag order. Today there are at least six, including central figures in the scam such as local authority heads. Their stories, along with hundreds of hours of wiretaps, have led investigators to additional suspected crimes.

The four people arrested yesterday weren’t well-known to the public, but they very well-connected, and sometimes more influential than Knesset members or even some ministers. Wiznitzer, as the CEO and chairman of public companies – most recently, the Tel Aviv light rail company NTA – controlled billions of shekels. And wherever he went, he appointed cronies and made eyebrow-raising economic decisions. He is suspected of taking bribes and trying to conceal them.

Yehoshua, like Wiznitzer, is very close to Lieberman and also has excellent contacts in the ruling Likud party. He formerly worked as a lobbyist for businessmen Yitzhak Tshuva and Nochi Dankner, and also for many government companies. In addition, he was considered one of the strongmen of Likud’s Jerusalem branch, which gave him extensive access to prime ministers, other ministers and regulators. Half the cabinet could be found at Yehoshua’s and Wiznitzer’s family celebrations.

Yehoshua is suspected of numerous counts of bribery. Police asked that he turn state’s evidence, but he refused. “They wanted to get to Lieberman through me,” he told associates.

The third person arrested yesterday is veteran Likud activist Shaul Mizrahi, chairman of the Local Government Economic Services company, which runs tenders for important municipal suppliers. In 2009, he was arrested on suspicion of taking bribes, but that didn’t deter mayors of major cities from reelecting him as chairman for a third term.

During Mizrahi’s tenure, Yehoshua served as one of the company’s advisers. And Mizrahi’s only suspected involvement in the current case is obstructing justice, apparently to help Yehoshua.

The fourth arrestee, Shai Beres, succeded Wiznitzer as CEO of Netivei Israel and is similarly suspected of taking bribes. He told police he had acceded to Wiznitzer’s request to continue employing several of the latter’s cronies at the public’s expense, including Yehoshua, whose job was to open doors for the company. He also said Wiznitzer had asked him to employ Wiznitzer’s son as an outside contractor.

A source well-versed in the details of the case told Haaretz that the new crimes now being investigated involve the same basic system – “weighty suspicions that state funds found their way by fraud into the pockets of senior public-sector officials, while fixers and lobbyists close to them also reaped bonuses.”

The salient characteristic of this case is the cynical way in which our money was allegedly transferred into their pockets. Its leading lights belong to that thin layer of party hacks, fixers and others close to the people in power who are quick to identify opportunities to thrust their hands deep into the public coffers. Their occupation is making shady deals – deals that, until their arrest, were very profitable.

In another few months, the case is expected to go to court. There’s even a target date – January, the month when Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is due to vacate his post.

In conversations with his staff, Weinstein recently promised to make decisions on whether to charge all the people involved before his successor takes office. Currently, he is leaning heavily toward indicting most of the leading suspects.

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