The Charges Against Yisrael Beiteinu and the Story of Aryeh Deri

“Massive” in the sense that massive sums of money have been involved.

Moreover, it means that the people who participated in the scheme were individuals who occupy key positions in the government. On the national level, this includes a deputy minister, a former minister, various Knesset members, and the director of a government office. On the local level, the corruption involved the heads of various local authorities. And then there were also the leaders of certain national organizations. The lobbyists involved in the scandal – whom the police, for some reason, like to call “machers” – were actually the ones least guilty of criminal involvement, since they were simply engaged in their occupation. They make no efforts to conceal their activities, and no one denies that they have every right to benefit from their successes in lobbying.

The current saga began less than a month ago, when a large number of public figures were suddenly arrested. In court, when they were brought to a hearing to have their remand extended, the representative of the police force was forced to reveal the reasons for the arrests. Despite his efforts to conceal the details, he gave a general idea of the charges faced by the detainees: “A picture has emerged of a system in which government funding was improperly allocated to various entities in exchange for the transfer of part of those funds to members of the Knesset and their associates or the appointment of those associates to public positions. The parties are suspected of engaging in bribery in fifteen cases, involving millions of shekels.”

As it turns out, this tale of corruption has been under investigation for two years, albeit clandestinely. According to the police, the investigation began when a certain public entity complained that it had been asked to pay a fee in exchange for receiving government funds. The police went on to investigate aberrations involving the company overseeing the development of Samaria. They claim that there are state witnesses who are prepared to testify against the senior officials in question. This is the way these cases generally work: A defendant charged with low-level bribery turns into a state witness. The police have also claimed to be in possession of recordings that will serve as “ironclad evidence” in the upcoming court cases.

Thirty people have been interrogated and held in custody over the course of the current proceedings. These include Faina Kirschenbaum, the current Deputy Minister of the Interior and a Knesset member from the Yisrael Beiteinu party. She has already announced her resignation from politics as a result of the police investigation and has added that she will exercise her right to silence during the investigation. Among the other officials who have been arrested are the former Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov; a senior member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Rami Cohen; the director of the Ministry of Agriculture; the heads of the Tamar, Megillot and Shomron Regional Councils; the head of Israel’s handball federation; and the mayor of Afula. A number of well-known lobbyists were also arrested, including Moshe Leon, who previously served as the director of the prime minister’s office and was a candidate for the post of mayor of Yerushalayim, and Yisrael Yehoshua, a senior Likud activist.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, slammed the police and the state attorney for the probe.

“This is a premeditated and carefully timed process, an investigation that was scheduled in accordance with the upcoming elections,” he fumed.

In other words, he is accusing the police of launching a politically motivated investigation. He claims – and he is correct about this – that some bombshell is always discovered during the course of an election campaign to cause damage to him or to his party. Police Commissioner Yochanan Danino and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein hurried to protest his accusations, claiming that the investigation went public because conditions were ripe. Weinstein added, “I approved the opening of the police investigation and I followed it. It is a significant probe, which raises the suspicion of organized, systematic corruption on a broad scale.”

It seems that both sides are right. The investigation does give the strong impression of being politically driven. At the same time, it seems likely that it will end with criminal charges.

In that sense, at least, it is unlike a similar incident that occurred years ago involving Aryeh Deri.

A POLICE OFFICIAL WHO DESPISED CHAREIDIM

This brings us to my own personal involvement in an episode that began in a similar way but ultimately led nowhere. At that time, as well, the news headlines dealt with the story for days, perhaps even weeks. In short, the Yisrael Beiteinu corruption story has transported me back to the month of Elul 5750, to a date on the secular calendar that is easy to remember: September 9, 1990.

On that morning, the police arrested all of the aides of Aryeh Deri, who was then serving as the Minister of the Interior. Until Deri was deemed a pariah by the “rule of law,” he was the darling of the country.

“Almost everything in this country happens on his command,” Amnon Abramowitz, a senior Israeli journalist, wrote about Deri in Maariv in April 1989. Other journalists, too, described him in many admiring headlines: “A New Kind of Chareidi Leader” (Gideon Alon, today a senior writer for Yisrael Hayom, in Haaretz, June 1989); “Thanks to the New Style of Aryeh Deri” (David Shacham, Yediot Acharonot, May 1989); “Deri Displays Ministerial Fortitude” (Chagai Segal, Chadashot, June 1989; the newspaper has since closed); and “A Gifted Actor Plays Political Poker” (Dani Ben Simon, Davar, April 1989; this newspaper, the daily publication of Mapai, has also closed).

It was Shachar Ilan who was the first to recognize what was happening. Then a young journalist working for a local publication in Yerushalayim, Ilan serves today as the head of a Reform organization that tracks every cent of government funding for chareidim in Eretz Yisroel and works to block any allocations to our community. At the time, he wrote in an article in Kol Ha’ir, “He has managed to bypass battles that would guarantee him popularity among the chareidim, but would result in increased chiloni hostility. Thus, over the course of a few months, Deri has come to be widely viewed as an enlightened government minister with whom it is actually possible to do business. So what if he continues to channel massive amounts of funding to the yeshivos?”

The truth is that it wasn’t only the yeshivos, the shuls and the mikvaos that benefited from funding Deri allocated to them from the Ministry of the Interior. He accomplished much more: the founding of El Hamaayan, with its hundreds of branches; the establishment of a network of dozens of talmudei Torah; and the allocation of land for shuls and yeshivos, along with the funding to develop it. The chareidi and Sephardic communities were able to raise their heads with pride.

In an interview with Gideon Levi (in a supplement to Haaretz in April 1989), who is considered an “intellectual” associated with the far left of the Israeli political map, yet who praised Deri highly in the article, Deri said clearly, “Make no mistake: My style may be different, but I am no less chareidi than all the chareidim.” But Levi nevertheless described their conversation as “an interview with the young minister who has enchanted everyone near and far – from Meretz to Agudah.”

Deri’s magic worked until the penny dropped for people such as Roni Milo and Dorit Beinish, who recognized that if they did not declare war on Deri, they – i.e., the entire secular society of Israel – would have a problem. Shamir and Meridor, the prime minister and Minister of Justice, secretly partnered with Milo, the police commissioner, and Beinish, the state attorney, in their campaign against Deri. The media, especially Yediot, were secondary players.

That was how the “Deri saga” began – a story that went on to occupy the country’s attention for over ten years.

Out of Deri’s six aides, I was “fortunate” enough to be left alone in the Abu Kabir Detention Center in Yaffo, in the company of an assortment of other inmates. The vaunted investigators thought that I would help them get what they desired, which was essentially only one thing – Aryeh Deri’s head. That was their true goal, even if it wasn’t their stated intent.

One of my interrogators, a police official named Gary Litwin, who had immigrated from America, was clearly a fool and despised chareidim. Since the interrogations were recorded, he wrote Deri’s name on a piece of paper, showed it to me, and winked. When I failed to take the hint, he whispered to me, “Why are you taking the blame? Just say that Deri told you to do it and you’ll be free to go home.”

I still didn’t understand his intent. I said to him, “If only I had one percent of the zechuyos of Aryeh Deri!”

An entire book could be written about the malice and foolishness of that much-admired police unit, which was then known as the National Fraud Investigations Unit and has since had its name shortened to Lahav 433. The unit is located in the city of Lod, in a well-appointed building, and is the same unit that is currently conducting the investigation into Yisrael Beiteinu.

“HE STOLE MILLIONS FROM THE STATE COFFERS”

I was interrogated for several hours that morning. Each of Deri’s aides was placed in a different room, and our interrogators tried to create an atmosphere of panic. When they saw that we all remained calm, they themselves became frantic. They were used to the subjects of their questioning trembling in fear as soon as they sat down. They were unaccustomed to dealing with people who had learned in botei medrash. Thus, for instance, when they threatened me that I would be imprisoned and my picture would appear on the front page of every newspaper, I told them, “For me, that would be a great gift. For us, the highest level a person can reach is to be ‘captured for divrei Torah.’”

Unlike my colleagues, I was taken to prison from the interrogation. The next day, I was brought to court, where the police asked for me to be kept in custody. The junior police officers who were responsible for bringing prisoners from their underground cells to the judges’ chambers were actually very nice. All of them were devotees of the Shas party and ardent admirers of Deri. When they heard the name of the judge before whom I was slated to appear, they said, “What a waste of time. He’s going to extend your remand by a week! He is nothing but a rubber stamp for the police.” At least I was prepared. Then they added, “Don’t be surprised if he begins his verdict with the words, ‘I am satisfied.’”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that’s how he always introduces his decisions. It means that he is satisfied that the request of the police is justified.”

The entire courtroom was perplexed when I burst out laughing as the judge began reading his decision after each side had presented its arguments. Of course, it started with the very phrase that the police officers had warned me about: “I am satisfied….”

The judge acceded to the request of the police and I was sent back to Abu Kabir for another week. It wasn’t terrible there, but that is not the topic of our discussion at the moment. We will deal with that story at another time. My incarceration did lead to one positive development, though: The Sefer Torah in the prison shul, which was posul, was exchanged for a kosher one in response to a request I submitted after I was released. Now there is a kosher Sefer Torah there – unless the second Sefer Torah, too, became posul over the course of the years.

In any event, on the day after the hearing regarding the extension of my remand, I found out the “crimes” with which I had been charged by reading the newspapers. In Maariv, Gideon Meron reported, “Yaakovson is suspected of taking funds for his own use.” Buki Naeh wrote in Chadashot, “Yaakovson is suspected of funneling millions of shekels of government money into his own pocket.” And Yoram Yarkoni reported in Yediot Acharonot, “After examining the secret material presented by the police, Judge Baraz declared, ‘I am satisfied that there is a reasonable and substantial suspicion of crimes of breach of trust on a broad scale and of great severity.’”

But all these allegations ultimately dissipated. In hindsight, it was revealed that all of Deri’s aides, including me, were arrested for no reason other than to create an atmosphere of scandal. The police could hardly bear their shame, and a year later, based on some documents that I had proudly kept in my office in the Ministry of the Interior, I was charged with bribery. According to the trumped-up charges, I had “bribed” a high-ranking officer in the army (by preventing his wife from being fired from her job) to help yeshiva students. The charges were strained and were intended to conceal my baseless imprisonment. Ultimately, the officer was exonerated of the charge of accepting bribes, but I was convicted of giving a bribe.

How is such a thing possible? That was simply the court’s decision.

The regional judge, Dr. Oded Mudrick – a Likud man and a good friend of Milo – did not have many options. The trial took place in his courtroom a year after my arrest, and it took a year for the proceedings to be completed. During that time, testimony was offered on my behalf by Yossi Sarid, the Minister of the Police at the time, and by Minister Rechavam Zeevi, but, again, that is not the topic of this article. And I was convicted!

THE JUDGE SWALLOWS A BITTER PILL

The judge’s decision was, in a sense, entertaining in its twisted logic. “There was an improper intent mixed with a pure intent,” he wrote, “but the improper intent adds its flavor, like [the Talmudic principle of] taam k’ikar.” In other words, he maintained, while it was true that I was the aide to Aryeh Deri, who was responsible for dealing with requests submitted by citizens, and in that capacity I helped everyone who turned to our office for help, and the army officer was entitled to assistance like any other citizen, and I hadn’t done anything wrong, nevertheless, in my assistance to him, I had also considered the fact that as a result of my help, he would respond in kind when I turned to him for help in an area in which he had responsibility. In this case, he would assist me in dealing with the cases of yeshiva students who had dodged the draft or needed to receive deferments. In effect, the judge was perturbed by the fact that I had advised Deri to suggest that that officer be promoted. And with that argument, he pretended that this was not the normal course of events, as if he himself had not been promoted in the same manner.

Indeed, I had personally overheard a conversation between the Minister of Police and the Minister of Defense regarding which position it would be best to give to Mudrick: that of legal advisor to the police or chief military attorney. He was indeed tapped to serve as the legal advisor to the police, and he later became a district judge, a position in which he was “stuck.” I have written about this in the past, and I challenged Mudrick to sue me for libel. He did not take the challenge. Perhaps now, after this story is published in the Yated in America, he will do so…

One more point about the honorable judge Dr. Oded Mudrick: Just as Salim Jubran, a justice on Israel’s Supreme Court, serves as the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, a number of local judges throughout the country serve as the heads of the regional election councils. There are about 15 local election committees around the country serving under the Central Elections Committee.

And just as the Shas party has a deputy serving under Judge Jubran, it is also entitled to have deputies under several of the judges heading the various regional committees around the country. One of those committees, in the northern Dan, has been headed for many years by none other than Judge Oded Mudrick. And whom does Shas appoint to serve as his deputy before every election? You guessed it: me.

Hence, during every election campaign, Oded Mudrick must swallow the bitter pill of having me as his deputy. And I am highly outspoken on the committee. I challenge him whenever I can. During one campaign, he even asked Dorit Beinish, who was then serving as the head of the national election committee, to disqualify me. “It distresses me,” he told her. But, of course, his request was rejected. One of Beinish’s close associates later told me that she said to him, “I understand you, but there is no legal way to remove Yaakovson from the position.”

So the true face of the “rule of law” in this country has once again been revealed. These are its judges, and these are the people charged with enforcing its laws.

WILL HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF?

In light of the above, it is clear that with the current situation involving Yisrael Beiteinu taking us on a trip down memory lane, my sympathies lie with those who are being arrested and questioned. Since they tend to be deeply concerned about dealing with judges and journalists, they are undoubtedly highly pained by the arrests and the negative publicity. Deep down, I know that the police cannot be trusted. At the same time, I know that there is still a possibility that these people might indeed have pilfered government funds for their own use.

Back to the case of Aryeh Deri: The witch hunt that the government conducted in its fear of Deri has become a badge of shame for the country. It was a saga that involved hundreds of investigators, the interrogations of thousands of individuals, millions of shekels in expenses, and plenty of clandestine eavesdropping and investigative trips out of the country – all in order to silence a talented young man who had risen to fame with his charismatic personality and who threatened to change the status quo in the country.

The investigations led to a series of criminal accusations against Deri on both a personal and a political level. From a judicial standpoint, both sets of charges barely led anywhere. Deri was painted by the media and the police as a mega-thief and possible murderer, but most of the accusations against him were thoroughly debunked. He was found guilty of accepting bribes from his close friends in Yeshivas Lev Banim. Although this took place mostly before the Shas party was established, the judge claimed that the salaries that he received there constituted a form of “bribery” in advance. In the “court” of public opinion, meanwhile, he was almost completely exonerated.

It is no wonder, then, that the public did not accept the court’s guilty findings. It is no wonder that the Shas party’s power soared after that incident. Deri’s conviction, which was widely perceived as politically motivated persecution, caused the party to earn 17 mandates in the next elections. And it is no wonder that tens of thousands of people accompanied Deri to prison. Today, many hope that those mighty waves of adoration for Deri will make a comeback.

Aryeh Deri paid his “debt.” But what of those who put him through that major ordeal? In a normal country, criminals pay for their misdeeds, but in Israel, the true miscreants are living the good life, while we continue to suffer. It wasn’t only Ben Gurion and his cronies who had the attitudes toward Sephardim and chareidim that are currently being revealed in the archives that have recently come to light….