Netanyahu's Right-hand Man David Bitan Suspected of Bribery and Money Laundering

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Coalition whip David Bitan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 27, 2017.
Coalition whip David Bitan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 27, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

David Bitan, the government's coalition whip and a close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was interrogated Sunday morning on suspicion of bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust during his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion, a city near Tel Aviv.

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As part of the investigation, the police arrested 17 public employees – at least six of whom have direct ties to Bitan – on suspicions of corruption and links to organized crime.

The suspects include senior officials at the Rishon Letzion municipality, well-known businesspeople and a major organized crime figure from the Tel Aviv area who had previously been arrested in connection to cases involving serious violence. Law enforcement officials suspect that the municipal officials promoted the interests of a crime organization at a construction site in the city.

>> Netanyahu's 'human shield' David Bitan: Which direction does the strongest man in Israeli politics want to take the country? >>

Coalition whip David Bitan arrives for interrogation, December 3, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Israelis take part in a demonstration under the name "March of Shame" to protest against government corruption and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 2, 2017 in Tel Aviv.  / AFP PHOTO / Oren ZIV
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017.
Israelis take part in a demonstration under the name "March of Shame" to protest against government corruption and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 2, 2017 in Tel Aviv.
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Israelis take part in a demonstration under the name "March of Shame" to protest against government corruption and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 2, 2017 in Tel Aviv.Credit: OREN ZIV/AFP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
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Israelis take part in a demonstration under the name "March of Shame" to protest against government corruption and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 2, 2017 in Tel Aviv. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Police stated Sunday that the mayor of Rishon Lezion, Dov Tzur, is now suspected of bribery felonies and his arrest was extended Sunday by five days.

Tzur is also suspected of extortion, fraud, breach of trust and money laundering. Judge Amit Michlis told the court on Sunday that Tzur acted to hide his illegal actions over the years. "The picture that is being painted and was presented to me is worrying," Judge Michlis said.

Tzur's deputy, Eyal Moshayev, is also suspected of bribery and his arrest has been extended by five days. 

In recent months, the police's fraud squad has been collecting evidence in the case against Bitan and his past and present associates with the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Sunday morning's arrests are part of a larger undercover investigation that has been going on for the past year, the police said in a statement. This probe became public on Sunday with the arrest of the suspects. 

Bitan has been in the middle of a complex effort to ensure a Knesset majority for the passage of a bill that will prevent the police from making public their recommendations to indict following an investigation. Critics say the bill is intended to shield Netanyahu from police investigations. Tens of thousands of people rallied in protest on Saturday night in Tel Aviv against the bill and government corruption.

Bitan and his assistants have been working to have 20 coalition Knesset members return from the Saban Middle East policy forum in Washington ahead of Monday's vote on the bill to ensure passage of the legislation. If his interrogation continues, Bitan's absence over the next two days puts into doubt the coalition's ability to manage Monday's vote and get the bill passed.

Before his election to the Knesset, Bitan was a strong presence in Rishon Letzion. He was elected to the city council in 1988 and appointed deputy mayor in 2005. From 2008 to 2010, and then again from 2013, he chaired the local zoning board and held the city’s engineering portfolio.

During this period, Bitan went into debt and took out loans from moneylenders in the “gray market,” where interest rates are high. His wages were garnished and the Bailiff’s Office launched debt collection proceedings against him. A criminal investigation launched against Bitan in 2010 led him to resign from his city government positions related to construction, but the investigation was eventually closed by prosecutors from the Central District.

Individuals who were in contact with him during this period said in sworn statements that Bitan told them that he owed a total of 7 million shekels (around $2 million at current exchange rates) and was being pursued by gray-market debt collectors.

In a report in TheMarker last year, a senior city official said Bitan briefly went underground for fear of his creditors.

In an interview with the Channel 10 investigative program “Hamakor,” Bitan vehemently denied claims that third parties had paid some of his debts, saying he had never taken favors from anyone. Some of the statements that were collected by police referred to checks that building contractors and other interested parties in Rishon Letzion allegedly gave Bitan to cover his loans when he was in charge of construction permits and regulatory compliance in the city government.

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