Israel's acting state prosecutor on Thursday instructed the Israel Police to open a criminal investigation into an affair involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main rival Benny Gantz and his former artificial intelligence company Fifth Dimension, prior to Israel's March 2 election.
Following Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit's letter on the matter, Acting State Prosecutor Dan Eldad has decided to launch a criminal probe into Fifth Dimension on suspicion that the company fraudulently received funds from the police. The Justice Ministry said that Eldad reached his decision after reviewing documents, legal opinions written by State Prosecution officials and meetings he held with senior officials from the Prosecution.
Israel Police will be responsible of handling the investigation, and if the need arises the Police Investigations Department will be involved in the probe.
Speaking in an election campaign event of Russian-speaking immigrants in Tel Aviv, Gantz said that he "Fully trusts the law enforcement system and I have no problem with any probe they want to launch. This affair has no criminal aspect as far as I'm concerned."
The Kahol Lavan leader added that Netanyahu's Likud Party is the one pushing for the investigation to take place.
"Likud understand that on March 17 Netanyahu will no longer be a suspect, nor in the process of a hearing. On March 17 Likud leader Netanyahu will sit in the dock. I rest assured that nothing will come out [of this investigation] and completely trust the law enforcement system," Gantz said in reference to Netanyahu's trial for three corruption cases, slated to begin on March 17.
Senior prosecution and law officials have harshly criticized Eldad for the action, which took prosecutors by surprise. One said the acting state prosecutor had become "a lackey of the justice minister, a consigliere."
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"We've turned into Turkey, Eldad is turning the prosecution into a political prosecution," one of them said.
The harsh criticism within the law enforcement system follows what officials call a hasty, rash decision by Eldad to turn the examination of Fifth Dimension into a criminal investigation on the eve of election.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit also criticized in private conversations Eldad's decision to open an investigation at this time.
The main criticism against Eldad isn't on opening the investigation itself, but mainly about the speed with which he decided to move from looking into the issue to launching a criminal probe, and mainly about the timing.
Making such a move just before the election, they say, when political sensitivity is heightened, may lead people to drawing a connection between the investigation and Benny Gantz.
According to several law enforcement officials, the police were not at all involved in the decision-making process that led to launching a criminal probe into the Fifth Dimension, as opposed to other such sensitive investigations in the past.
The officials added that the police were surprised to hear about Eldad's decision, and are not familiar with the investigative material since a preliminary investigation procedure wasn't carried out by the police.
In addition, the police will have to study the investigative material in the next few days, which may cause a delay in summoning witnesses. "There's a feeling that somebody is putting the cart before the horses," one official said.
Earlier, Gantz, who is not a suspect in the affair, charged that the investigation was an attempt to meddle in the electoral process.
"It is clear to me that this is political pressure, that the comptroller's report is being used for political reasons. The police should be investigated — not us," said Gantz in response in an interview on Israel's Kan Bet radio.
"Unlike Netanyahu, I respect the legal framework," Gantz added. "I am open to any scrutiny, and I am confident in my clean record. I have shown transparence to the public," he said.
According to assessments, the investigation will be opened after Israel's general election on March 2. The report that a probe will likely be opened was released by Channel 13 News on Wednesday.
Fifth Dimension dealt with the development of an artificial intelligence system that was meant to process intelligence and data related to the operations of law enforcement agencies, like the Israel Police.
A State Comptroller's report published in March determined that the police had acted against procedures when it promoted the contractual relationship with Fifth Dimension in return for 50 million shekels ($14.5 million) without a tender.
The company operated a pilot program for the police that cost four million shekels; at the center of the program was an artificial intelligence system for intelligence gathering that was intended for civilian law enforcement.
According to the Comptroller's report, the man who pushed for the cooperation with Fifth Dimension was then-police chief Roni Alsheikh, who had instructed for the pilot to be launched without a tender.
The State Comptroller's report also stated that Fifth Dimension had claimed to police that it existed for four years, when it was only founded two years prior to the collaboration. The company also claimed that it had a ready product, although it was still in development. Fifth Dimension further stated that it had five clients that were all security entities, when in fact it had no customers at the time.
The company was established in 2014, and its deputy CEO was ex-Mossad chief Ram Ben Barak, who is today a Kahol Lavan lawmaker. Fifth Dimension closed in 2018, and all of its employees were dismissed.