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Israel minister resigns after being handed graft indictment 

Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz
Israeli Social Affairs and Social Services Minister, Haim Katz [El faro de Israel/Facebook]

Israeli government minister and member of the ruling Likud party, Haim Katz, has today resigned over his recent indictment on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last week announced that he intended to indict Katz for his alleged quid-pro-quo relationship with Mordechai (Moti) Ben-Ari, a financial adviser to Israeli holding company Equital. Ben-Ari is suspected of having advised Katz to buy securities issued by an Equital subsidiary, based on insider information he obtained through his connections to the company.

In exchange for Ben-Ari’s services, Katz allegedly sponsored legislation that Ben-Ari himself drafted which would benefit both Equital and Ben-Ari personally, all while concealing the pair’s relationship.

Now Mandelblit has told Katz that he must resign from his position as Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister in line with a long-standing Supreme Court ruling which states that an indicted cabinet minister must resign. Under this ruling, Katz may be disqualified from serving as a minister in any new government following Israel’s 17 September election.

Katz is, however, allowed to keep his position as Knesset Member (MK) and is expected to push for immunity from prosecution while he remains in parliament. Under Israeli law, the attorney general must notify the Knesset of his decision to indict a sitting MK and ask lawmakers to lift his or her immunity from prosecution, before pressing charges.

The MK can then argue against his or her immunity being lifted. However, as the Times of Israel pointed out, “the current 21st Knesset, elected on April 9, never staffed its committees, and so doesn’t have a standing House Committee to which Katz can appeal for immunity, as the law requires”.

It is not yet clear whether proceedings will therefore be delayed until after 17 September election and the subsequent coalition negotiations needed to form a working government.

READ: Prominent Arab-Israeli lawmaker Zoabi to be indicted for corruption

Katz joins a host of prominent Israeli government ministers facing graft charges.

Chief among these is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases. The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, claiming the charges are the result of a “leftist” media conspiracy working to see him indicted. As a result, Netanyahu has explored increasingly-creative options to avoid appearing in court in October, including attempting to pass an immunity law, calling a do-over election, appointing long-time allies to the Justice Ministry and stacking crucial oversight committees in his favour.

If charged, Netanyahu could face up to ten years in prison.

Earlier this month it also emerged that Deputy Health Minister and head of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party – a close ally of Netanyahu’s Likud – Yaakov Litzman, also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Israel Police recommended charging Litzman for allegedly using his influence in Israel’s Health Ministry to impact the professional opinions of his subordinates regarding Malka Leifer, a former principle at an ultra-Orthodox girl’s school wanted in Australia on 74 counts of child sexual assault and rape.

Litzman allegedly pressured Jerusalem district psychiatrist, Dr. Yaakov Jacob Charnes, into saying that Leifer was mentally unfit to attend an extradition hearing which could have seen her deported back to Australia. After an undercover investigation discovered Leifer to be living a “normal” life in the illegal West Bank settlement of Emmanuel, she was re-arrested and is expected to be deemed fit to attend an extradition hearing next month.

Litzman’s case will now be passed to Mandelblit for his decision on whether to indict the Deputy Health Minister. Should the attorney general rule as such, Litzman could also be forced to step down from his ministerial post.

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Just yesterday Israel’s State Prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, recommended that Mandelblit indict Interior Minister and head of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri.

In November, Israel Police recommended indicting Deri for fraud, breach of trust, obstructing court proceedings, money laundering and tax offenses thought to amount to millions of shekels, some of which were committed during his time in the Israeli cabinet.

It is believed that Deri diverted hundreds of thousands of shekels in state funds to NGOs run by members of his immediate family, with the investigation also focusing on transactions for the sale of land owned by Deri in Givat Shaul (Lifta), west of Jerusalem, and Har Shmuel (sometimes known as Har Homa), an illegal Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

Deri previously served 22 months in prison between 2000 and 2002 after he was convicted of taking bribes worth $155,000 during his term as interior minister under Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 government. At that time he was required to step down from his ministerial position and was banned from re-entering politics until 2012.

Mandelblit is not expected to rule on Deri’s fate until after the September election, but is reportedly planning to hand down his verdict before Nitzan’s term as state prosecutor ends in December.

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