Additional government ministries may be investigated in the expanding political corruption case that has enmeshed the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, sources close to the investigation said Saturday night.
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The arrest of additional high-ranking public officials is likely, according to the sources. Several officials associated with Yisrael Beiteinu are currently in detention or out on bail.
According to the sources, since the investigation went public a troubling picture of using public money to benefit the party and its officials has been painted, which seems to extend beyond the Interior Ministry. The middlemen who were detained during the first wave of arrests are suspected of using similar tactics in various ministries controlled by the party. Currently, Yisrael Beiteinu holds five ministerial positions, including the foreign, agriculture, absorption, tourism and public security portfolios. Investigations into the Public Security Ministry could force the Israel Police to investigate high-ranking officials from the ministry responsible for its conduct.
Information recently received by the police and currently being investigated could link party leader Lieberman to the scandal, even though police officials are saying that at this time there is not sufficient evidence to say that Lieberman knew of the criminal acts taking place.
Two media reports from recent months give rise to additional questions that police investigators might have to answer. The two reports focus on the 2013 municipal election in Kiryat Shmona, and various party funds that made their way to the city.
The first report is an interview granted by Deputy Interior Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairwoman Faina Kirshenbaum to Army Radio roughly two months ago. During the interview, Kirshenbaum admitted and even bragged about her party having directly transferred money to fund an emergency room in Kiryat Shmona, without going through the Health Ministry.
The amounts transferred were part of “coalition funds” – budgets that were, until a few years ago, granted to various parties in the coalition to be used as the parties saw fit. Currently, this custom has been abolished, and funds are supposed to be transferred through the appropriate government ministries, and not directly from parties themselves. The annual budget of the emergency room in question is 2.7 million shekels ($690,000).
Kirshenbaum even admitted that the individual who ran the emergency room in Kiryat Shmona at the time was Yisrael Beiteinu’s representative in the city, Dr. Boris Sidlakovski. Sidlakovski, who chaired the Yisrael Beiteinu faction on the Kiryat Shmona city council, also served as deputy minister. He has been paid for his position as deputy mayor since 2011. The transfer of funds for the emergency room was approved just after he was appointed deputy mayor.
The second report appeared a week later, in early November, on a blog called “Haplog” run by bloggers Tal Shneider and Tomer Avital. The two uncovered a recording of Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon during a small campaign event in a private home. Kahlon spoke about pressure from “a very important” minister a few years ago on Kiryat Shmona’s then-mayor Nissim Malka to appoint a representative from his party as deputy mayor.
“There is a certain, very important minister, a really important minister, I wouldn’t say so without reason,” Kahlon can he heard on a recording posted to the blog. “He told the mayor that until he appoints his regional coordinator as deputy, I won’t give you anything. What would he do now? Regional coordinator. His salary [as deputy mayor] is 35,000 shekels a month, with all that it comes with, a secretary and everything else He [the mayor] told me, Moshe, for three and a half million shekels I can be done with this problem ... also don’t need him [the deputy] between us, he [the deputy] won’t do anything okay. I took the problem upon myself. I know how to make contacts. I called the minster. He [the minister] told me, listen Kahlon, if he doesn’t get appointed, I’ll cut him off. What do you say?”
It is unclear who exactly that “important minister” is, or if Kahlon’s story is related to the funding for the emergency room in Kiryat Shmona from Yisrael Beitenu, or Sildakovski. Kahlon himself claims that the story did not happen exactly as he described, and that his anecdote was “metaphorical,” and meant to provide an example for those unaware of the problems inherent in Israeli party politics.
Two days ago, responding to suspicions of corruption against officials in his party, Lieberman wrote “time after time and without exception, before every election, ‘mysterious forces’ get involved and harm Yisrael Beteinu’s chances of participating fairly. Because with regards to Yisrael Beiteinu – there is no election without [an] investigation.”
Lieberman expressed confidence in the innocence of the suspects and added that he “strongly rejects attempts to stain Yisrael Beteinu as a whole.”
In other political news, over 16,000 Meretz party members across Israel will vote on Sunday to choose 1,000 members for the party’s central committee, which will then decide on January 19 the party slate for the upcoming Knesset election. The committee is expected to reappoint Zahava Gal-On as party leader next Sunday. According to the latest opinion polls, Meretz is expected to net five to eight Knesset seats.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid stated on Saturday that his party would never accept any division of Jerusalem – even if that meant failure to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
“We will not divide Jerusalem, no matter what happens,” said the former finance minister, speaking at a public cultural event in Holon.
An agreement with the Palestinians “can be reached without dividing Jerusalem,” he said. “Nations do not conduct negotiations over their capital cities, and if that’s why attempts to reach an agreement fail – let them fail.”
The centrist leader attacked Israel’s left for “announcing its concessions ahead of time,” and the right wing for “not truly wanting an agreement with the Palestinians.”
“We need to separate ourselves from the Palestinians, and not forget that their heroes are people going around in black masks, like Islamic State militants, cutting off heads,” Lapid said. “The Palestinians will never agree to a deal only with them because they are afraid of the world’s Muslim extremists – and that is why we need to go to the Arab League nations, and through them start regional negotiations.”
MK Danny Danon, who is running against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership this week, called on the leaders of Israel’s right-wing parties to declare in advance whether they intend to support Netanyahu as prime minister.
“I demand that Lieberman, Kahlon and [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri, most of whose voters come from the national camp, be brave and make known whether they will support a right-wing or left-wing government,” Danon said at a Saturday cultural event in Holon. He added that right-leaning voters will feel “deceived” if they vote for the above-mentioned leaders, only for them to join a government led by the center-left ticket of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.