Israel’s acting state prosecutor, who ordered a police investigation into an AI firm formerly headed by Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz, only became familiar with the case earlier this week after being asked to decide on it by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party.
Prosecutors confirmed on Thursday that Eldad had given his approval for police to launch a criminal investigation into the company, Fifth Dimension, before next month’s election.
Senior prosecutors were surprised by Eldad’s announcement and sharply criticized the hasty decision to investigate the firm and the announcement's timing, which they view as a bid to sabotage Gantz – although he is not suspected of any wrongdoing.
“We’ve become like Turkey,” one of the senior prosecutors said. “Eldad is making the state prosecution political.” Another senior figure called Eldad "a lackey of the justice minister, a consigliere."
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit also criticized the decision in remarks made behind closed doors.
Sources close to Eldad said Deputy State Prosecutor Shlomo Lemberger had prepared a brief on the case a few months ago but that the previous state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, had decided against opening an investigation.
In private talks, Eldad said that from the moment it turned out there were no suspicions of wrongdoing by Gantz, there was nothing impeding the decision to open a probe even within days of next month’s election.
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But on Thursday, officials said Eldad had made his decision following a letter from Mendelblit to probe Fifth Dimension on suspicion that the company fraudulently received funds from the police.
Law enforcement sources told Haaretz that contrary to what is customary in sensitive investigations, the police was not a party to the decision to investigate. This is despite the fact that the police fraud unit and Lahav 433 commander Yigal Ben-Shalom are likely to lead the probe. Thus, police are unfamiliar with the file, as they were not involved in the examination of the incident, a fact which may delay the investigation.
“There’s a feeling that someone is trying to put the cart before the horse,” one law enforcement source said of the timing of the announcement.
Eldad’s office said in response: “We don’t intend to comment on anonymous criticism by anonymous sources. The acting state prosecutor shall cooperate with all the prosecutors in cooperation with the state attorney general to further the rule of law and maintain the prosecution’ independence. We shall not allow those with agendas to damage the work of the prosecution. The decision to open an investigation was made in cooperation with senior prosecution officials and in coordination with the attorney general. An opinion on the issue was prepared a long time ago.”
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.
The investigation will look at suspicions of fraud on Fifth Dimension’s part. Last year, Haaretz reported that the police contacted the firm in 2017 for a pilot program at a cost of 4 million shekels and exempted the firm from a required public tender. Going forward, the Israel Police were supposed to invest 50 million shekels in the system, but the initiative was not launched before the company was shuttered.
The investigation will focus on suspicions that the company gave police false information about its capabilities, its client figures and how long it had been in business, according to a State Comptroller’s Report from last March. Senior company figures will be asked to testify and some may be questioned as suspects later on.
Gadi Siso, head of police investigations, will be recused from the case, as he has declared a conflict of interest on matters linked to the company due to prior familiarity with senior members.
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.