Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on Monday for the first time on the sexual abuse allegations against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder of the Zaka rescue organization, saying he "hopes it's not true."
On Sunday, the police said that they would open a formal investigation into Meshi-Zahav, following accusations of sexual assault and exploitation of women, men, and children revealed in a Haaretz report on Thursday. Meshi-Zahav is suspected of rape, solicitation of prostitution and indecent assault.
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Speaking with Army Radio, Netanyahu said that "I hope it’s not true, but justice should be served. Such a thing is unacceptable."
Also on Monday, Interior Minister Arye Dery commented on the matter, saying he was not aware of any of the allegations before the report was published.
Dery also said that Meshi-Zahav, who had won the Israel prize this year, made the right decision when he chose to renounce it.
After Meshi-Zahav relinquished the prize, Dery tweeted that "The time has come to choose a Mizrahi Israel Prize laureate." He later deleted the tweet.
When asked about the tweet on public radio Kan, Dery admitted it was a mistake on his part.
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“That was a mistake, I admit it. But yes, it pains me that up until now, the Israel Prize hasn't been given even once to a Mizrahi person. It’s not just with the Israel Prize, it’s almost with everything,” Dery said.
Meshi-Zahav arrived on Monday, on his own initiative, at the Israel Police's Lahav 433 unit tasked with investigating him, to provide his side of the story. He was subsequently turned away by an officer who clarified to him that his version cannot be heard at this time because he has not yet been summoned to an interrogation or to give testimony.
Responding to Thursday's report, Meshi-Zahav said that the question he received from Haaretz “included vague, anonymous claims that go back decades. Let me say immediately that they are baseless.”
Meanwhile, Meshi-Zahav has told his associates that he has "never committed criminal offense. I had consensual relations with different women, but they weren't coerced or illegal."
Meshi-Zhav's attorney, Ephraim Damari, said that his client is willing to fully cooperate with the police once he is summoned, adding he "has nothing to hide," and that he will answer anything the police ask him.
When asked whether Meshi-Zahav has anything to say to his alleged victims, Damari replied that his client has not yet been confronted with any of the accusers. "I assume once this happens, he will have the proper response."
The lawyer went on to say that Meshi-Zahav has not heard any of the testimonies against him. "We are currently only feeding on the media…..investigative reports are not always reliable. The best thing to do would be let the police to do their job…my client is ready and willing to be questioned and give his version."
"I have no idea what the report says," Damari added.
Meshi-Zahav’s name has come to represent a bridge between the ultra-Orthodox and secular communities, a symbol of the spirit of volunteering and helping ambulance crews save people’s lives. He has lit a torch in one of the annual Independence Day ceremonies.