Police begin inquiry into allegations of political corruption

 

ISRAELI police yesterday opened a formal investigation into alleged high level political corruption which is threatening the government of the Prime Minister, Mr, Benjamin Netanyahu.

For three hours, members of a specially established police investigative unit met journalists from the state funded Israel Television station, Channel One, which has in recent days broadcast allegations that aides to Mr Netanyahu attempted to subvert the legal system with a sordid deal over the appointment of the country's attorney general.

Rafik Halabi, the head of Channel One's News Department, said he and his staff would give the utmost assistance to the police, without revealing their sources. Mr Halabi has said he is completely certain of the accuracy of the allegations.

The claims concern the appointment earlier this month of a Jerusalem lawyer, Mr Ronnie Bar On, as attorney general the government's legal adviser and the country's top law enforcement officer.

According to Israel TV, Mr Baron, aides to Mr Netanyahu and an ultra Orthodox political leader, a Knesset member, Mr Aryeh Deri, cooked up a deal whereby Mr Bar On, once safely in office, would arrange a favourable plea bargain for Mr Deri, who is in the midst of a lengthy fraud and corruption trial.

In return, Mr Deri allegedly pledged the crucial support of two ministers from his Shas party for the recent accord with the Palestinians on Israel's troop withdrawal from Hebron.

Israel TV is now stating that Mr Netanyahu, to the best of its information, was not involved in the backroom deal making. The prime minister, for his part, has been castigating the state TV authority for political bias.

Interestingly, however, his own initial blanket assertion that the whole alleged affair was "a complete fabrication" gave way over the weekend to a more conditional assertion - that it was inconceivable that any such deal could have been done by his aides.

Mr Bar On, a long term activist in Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, and a close friend of the minister of justice, never formally took office as attorney general.

Although Mr Netanyahu and his ministers formally approved the appointment, it was met by such a deafening chorus of criticism from the legal establishment and the media, and so concerted an effort to discredit Mr Bar On, that he resigned before even setting foot in the Justice Ministry building.

Even before the current scandal broke, it was widely believed that his name had only ever been put forward because he was likely to be well disposed to Likud policies and Likud demands.

What Israel TV is claiming, however, is that the narrow political requirements of Mr Netanyahu's coalition was an integral part of the appointment, and thus that the independence of the Israeli legal system was being deeply undermined.

In what looked distinctly like a damage limitation exercise, Mr Netanyahu's government yesterday nominated one of the most respected Israeli jurists, a Jerusalem District Court judge, Mr Elyakim Rubinstein, for the attorney general's post. Mr Rubinstein is a former cabinet secretary, foreign ministry legal adviser and peace negotiator highly regarded by his legal colleagues and politicians across the spectrum.

(David Horovitz is managing editor of The Jerusalem Report)

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