The Findings From a Furniture Store That Got a Netanyahu Ally in Trouble

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Bitan arriving at a police station for interrogation, 2018
Bitan arriving at a police station for interrogation, 2018Credit: Ilan Assayag
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

For police investigators, their surreptitious recordings and secret photographs taken at a furniture store in a Tel Aviv suburb leave no  doubt: David Bitan, a former coalition whip and one of the people closest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a friend about bribery money he was supposed to receive from a real estate developer.

The developer, Dror Glazer, had sought to build student dormitories in south Tel Aviv, but his company got stuck in city bureaucracy. The police suspect that since 2011, he transferred hundreds of thousands of shekels to people close to Bitan, including Moshe Yosef, a man widely known as “Bitan’s banker.”

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Transcripts of the police’s questioning of Bitan now show the extent to which the Likud legislator may be in trouble.

A year ago, the police recommended that Bitan be indicted in 12 different affairs; they believe that money was transferred to Bitan, who they say then advanced Glazer's interests via confidant Arnon Giladi, a former Tel Aviv deputy mayor from Netanyahu’s Likud party. Glazer is just one of a number of businesspeople suspected of receiving similar services from Bitan.

Giladi’s attorney, Daphna Weinberg, has said “his actions as part of this job were aimed at advancing public goals and did not include the receipt of any personal privileges.”

In late January, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced  that he would indict Bitan for bribery, fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses, pending a hearing.

The police say they have photographic evidence of Yosef transferring money to Bitan after a request for “some cash to give to my wife.” Bitan, protected by parliamentary immunity, was summoned for questioning and denied the suspicions against him.

Bitan’s lawyers say he “never received money or favors in return for actions related to his role as a public servant.”

The evidence, which includes cellphone-location data, banking records, bank checks and alleged fictitious accounts, was gathered for months. Suspects were arrested on December 3, 2017.

The police believe that financial problems motivated Bitan, including debts he accrued when he ran the Hapoel Rishon soccer club. That team is based in Tel Aviv suburb Rishon Letzion, where Bitan is a former deputy mayor and where the furniture store in question is based. Thirteen files were opened against him by the government office that seizes property against debts.

A cool $72,000

“I don’t remember who I owed money to,” Bitan told the police. “Today I no longer have debts to anyone, ever since 2012.”

When asked if he had debts outside the ones to the government office that seizes property, he replied, “Yes, my brother paid them. I didn’t have the debts they said I did, my debts came to about a million in addition to the impounded property. And my brother paid off the debts. He sat with everyone and handled it.”

When asked to whom he owed money in the past, he said, “My checks reached people who claimed there was a debt, and my brother handled it.”

A police investigator then asked why it was so hard for him to say who he owed money to. “It’s all legal,” Bitan said. “You can open a case file after all these years only because I’m a Knesset member.”

However, according to the transcripts, “I want to finish this,” Bitan told Yosef. “I intend to close the debt within a month.”

The documentation was presented to Glazer, the developer. The investigators knew about Giladi’s attempts to push the dormitory initiative, his meetings with developers and a legal opinion aimed at increasing the number of housing units to be built.

In the end, Glazer agreed to testify against Bitan.

As Glazer put it, “Yosef’s ties to Bitan were clear; we needed help with the dormitory project. After a short negotiation and after I checked the issue with David Bitan, we reached an agreement with the developers.

“My deal with Bitan was for 250,000 shekels [$72,000] on the basis of it being a success. During the handling a problem arose … there was a problem with the building plans .… I met with David Bitan at the Sonol gas station in Rishon Letzion, I told him about the project and told him I could ensure that the payment for handling would be 250,000 shekels.

“David said fine. And in a conversation afterward he said ‘did we agree on 250?’ – and the matter was made clear. That was in 2016, after he was already serving in the Knesset. I confirmed it was 250.”

'David needed money on several levels'

As one of the investigators put it, Bitan viewed Glazer as a wallet. In 2018, Bitan allegedly asked Glazer to donate 13,000 shekels to Likud. According to the police, Glazer gave Yosef a check from a company that was a partner in the dormitories project, but the money didn’t reach the party.

On December 9, 2018, the police had Bitan and Glazer confront each other. The tense atmosphere was noticeable in the transcripts. Bitan told the investigators that he gave Glazer legal advice for which he is still owed “$55,000 plus value added tax.”

Glazer said the claim was ridiculous. “I came here to tell my truth,” he said. “One thing has nothing to do with the other. Even if you’re a lawyer I didn’t come to you for that, but to resolve problems.”

Meanwhile, Yosef’s family was questioned and he was detained in conditions that a court criticized the police for. In the end he succumbed, testified against Bitan and became a key witness for the prosecution.

“We agreed that I would ask people for money and later we divided it up,” Yosef told investigators. “The question of how I divided it between Bitan and me was that I would help him out with money when he needed it.

“When money came in I would deduct it from our account. When David’s brother got in trouble with debt, David felt a commitment to help him, just as he had helped David when he was in debt. David needed money on several levels. When he went abroad and he needed money for that, I would give him some.

“It would happen that David or his wife had a large overdraft and then he would ask me for money. I was a sort of cashier for him. When it would go in he’d be in the plus column and when it was taken out he would be overdrawn.”

As Yosef, put it, “All the payments David Bitan needed from me weren’t for bread and milk or money you could pass through the bank. The money came from all sorts of companies and things like that. The money went via me and not via Bitan, so nobody can say they gave David Bitan any money.

“Everything that went into the fund went out. I didn’t finance him. I was his cashier. Why did he need a cashier? He didn’t need to explain it to me, I understood. David Bitan has all sorts of things to pay for; suddenly his wife had an overdraft in her account, his daughters needed money, and every time he flew I would give him cash. We never imagined it would all blow up like this.”

Since the affair broke, Bitan has been questioned more than 10 times. Sometimes the atmosphere was jovial; the investigators would compliment the lawmaker on his sense of humor. Sometimes the tone was more serious.

The investigators would confront Bitan with the stories of the people involved in the affair; they told how they gave him hundreds of thousands of shekels via Yosef. He responded with silence or stuck by his denials.

Last June an investigator said, “Mr. Bitan this 25,000 shekels you received after you were already a Knesset member. It’s time to provide some explanations for it.”

Later, Bitan was cautioned: “MK Bitan, you are complicating yourself in lies.” Bitan stuck by his right to remain silent.

Bitan’s attorneys Dror Matatyahu, Efraim Demri and Sharon Kahane have said in a statement: "MK Bitan never received money or favors in return for actions related to his role as a public servant. All the decisions he made while serving in public posts were based solely on the merits of the case, and he only acted to serve the public." They said the evidence would "reveal an entirely different picture from the one painted in the indictment." 

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