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Monday, January 13, 2014

Israeli Rabbis and police officers are getting too chummy

Last month, attorneys Eli Zohar and Roy Blecher, who represent Yoshiyahu Pinto, a popular and influential rabbi, met with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Pinto is suspected of trying to bribe Brig. Gen. Efraim Bracha of the Israel Police investigation and intelligence division.

Ahead of the meeting, Weinstein had been about to announce that he planned to indict Pinto on serious charges, pending a hearing, but Zohar and Blecher gave Weinstein some presumably explosive information, the nature of which cannot be disclosed and imprecise fragments of which were leaked to the media last week. Weinstein decided to wait with his announcement about Pinto, which is now not expected for some weeks at the least.

The story began two years ago, when the police National Fraud Squad was investigating an alleged embezzlement at Hazon Yeshaya, a Jerusalem-based religious charity. An examination of its accounts suggested that some of its funds were diverted into a bank account identified with Pinto.

As a result, Pinto was questioned by police for the first time in his life. His previous encounters with high-ranking police officers had been under very different circumstances, in his strongholds in Ashdod and Manhattan. 

In addition to politicians, wealthy businessmen and known criminals, Pinto’s large circle of associates was also known to include several top police officers, past and present. Former commanders, among them Aryeh Amit, Uri Barlev and Haim Klein, were frequent visitors to the young rabbi’s institutions, as were senior officers on active duty. Some could be described as groupies. What were they doing there?

“They weren’t necessarily there for religious reasons,” says a figure with knowledge of the rabbi’s court. “They knew it was a power center and they saw their commanders going there and wanted to connect to the same center. Others enjoyed the benefits a place with considerable influence could provide; some sought intelligence information. And if [the officers] needed help with a job for a relative or financial aid, the rabbi was happy to help.”

Bracha was one of the officers who frequented Pinto’s institutions. During the recent bribery trial of former Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar, it emerged that Pinto helped Bracha recruit an important prosecution witness to testify against Bar.

The two grew close, as a result of which Pinto allegedly sought Bracha’s aid when he was being investigated by police in connection to the charity. According to police, Pinto offered Bracha a generous sum in exchange for his aid. After the meeting, Bracha went to his superiors and told them about their conversation. He had himself wired for sound and returned to Pinto for further discussion, at which time Bracha recorded Pinto’s alleged bribe offer. The Pinto case began making headlines.

At the time of the investigation, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino announced several appointments in the investigations division, which since Danino became commissioner has not initiated a single “quality” investigation against a senior government figure. After the appointments were announced, Weinstein received messages to the effect that some of the appointments were inappropriate and likely to cause a fiasco. The candidate to head the investigations department, Brig. Gen. Uri Machluf, was revealed back in 2008 to have ties with underworld boss Shalom Domrani, while the nominee to head the special Lahav 433 unit, Maj. Gen. Menashe Arbiv, has had his credibility questioned in the past by several senior officers, including Danino himself.

Danino’s choice to head the National Fraud Squad was none other than Bracha, an appointment that has also generated objections. Some of these came from associates of Pinto, who argued that Pinto and Bracha had a long-standing relationship that included Pinto supporting Bracha financially. These claims were investigated by the heads of the prosecution, who said there was nothing to them, with State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and his deputy, Eli Abarbanel, among those supporting Bracha’s appointment. It isn’t clear how deeply they investigated any of these candidates, or whether they paid enough attention to the deep ties that have developed between various rabbis and senior police commanders.

Ironically, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch announced on Friday that he is extending Danino’s term as national commissioner by another year. If the scandal simmering at national police headquarters turns out to be true, Danino will be the last person who could pick up the pieces.

Everything should be clarified soon, perhaps even this week, with the arrival in Israel of several people who could shed light on what could turn out to be one of the most embarrassing cases ever, one that a serious commissioner and more effective gatekeepers could have prevented.

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