Despite Criminal Probe Into Suspected Bribes, Netanyahu Ally David Bitan Won't Quit Israeli Knesset

Investigation regarding Netanyahu's right-hand man continues, as Bitan's wife questioned along with 5 others

Coalition whip David Bitan arrives for interrogation, December 3, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

David Bitan, head of Israel's ruling coalition head a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Tuesday that he has no intention of resigning from the Knesset, despite the ongoing criminal investigation into alleged bribes he received in a past role.

Bitan was questioned for suspected of bribery, money laundering, and breach of trust on Sunday. Hagit Bitan, his wife, was revealed Tuesday to have been arrested as well, and was questioned twice for suspected money laundering. She is on house arrest until Thursday.

Hagit and David Bitan
Hagit Bitan's Facebook Page

Overnight Monday, five additional individuals, including two leading members of the Jarousi crime organization, were questioned in connection to the case regarding David Bitan, one of whom was arrested. Their names have not yet been released. 

Investigators asked Mrs. Bitan to explain money transfers that add up to about 1.5 million shekel, which are suspected of being for Mr. Bitan himself. Mrs. Bitan denied that this sum was a bribe, and said that she did not manage their bank accounts. She further responded to investigators, saying "if he had been receiving bribes, we wouldn't be in debt, but we're still in debt today, so what are you talking about?"

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.

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. These 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.

During his tenure on Rishon Letzion's city council, as the city's deputy mayor, and on the local zoning board, 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.