Jerusalem (Mar. 9)
– Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu-Hatzeira spent more than eight hours on the witness stand in district court here yesterday defending himself against charges that he accepted bribes in return for monetary grants by his Ministry to Hasidic and other religious institutions in Bnei Brak.
Testifying for the first time in the trial which opened Feb. 24, Abu-Hatzeira attempted to convince the three-judge panel that the grants made were en-
tirely proper and in no way unusual and did not constitute kickbacks for bribes, as alleged by the prosecution. The Minister appeared confident throughout most of the five hours of questioning by Attorney General Gabriel Bach.
But he was rattled at the outset when Bach presented evidence which showed, according to the State, that Abu-Hatzeira had been involved in an effort to persuade the chief prosecution witness, Bnei Brak Mayor Yisrael Gottlieb, not to testify. The Minister conceded that he was aware of the efforts but insisted that he was in no way involved in them.
Abu-Hatzeira is on trial with his aide, Moshe Gabbai, who allegedly received the bribes and passed them on to him; Shmuel Daskal of the Vishnitz yeshiva, and Rabbi Amram Korach of the Yemenite Culture Foundation, both of whom allegedly paid the bribes.
Also involved is the Spinka Hasidic yeshiva in Bnei Brak whose director, Herman Fruchter, testified earlier in the trial that he gave Gottlieb IL 260,000 in 1979 intended to buy larger grants from the Religious Affairs Ministry to the Spinka institution. Fruchter was granted immunity for testifying.
The State contends that part of the bribe money was illicitly turned over to the Likud Utemura, a faction within the National Religious Party (NRP) headed by Abu-Hatzeira, Bach told the court yesterday that he was shocked to learn that party politics and factional politics within parties were among the criteria used by the Religious Affairs Ministry in awarding monies to certain institutions.
CLAIMS PRACTICE WAS COMMON
Abu-Hatzeira in fact confirmed that this was the case and defended it on grounds that it was common practice in all government ministries. He admitted that he authorized large grants to the Vishnitz and Spinka yeshivas in part to help Gottlieb’s standing in Bnei Brak after his defeat in the 1978 mayoral elections there. Gottlieb was, at the time, a major figure in the Likud Utemura faction.
The faction split last summer when Abu-Hatzeira fired David Lippel as Director General of the Religious Affairs Ministry, apparently angering Gottlieb and turning him against the Minister. Abu-Hatzeira contended that his former friend and associate had slandered him for personal or political revenge. He recalled that he had opposed Gottlieb’s long-standing ambition to become a Knesset member.
Gottlieb, who received immunity to testify, has been the key witness against Abu-Hatzeria and his co-defendants. His testimony, during the first week of the trial, generally followed the prosecution’s case but contained some inconsistencies. At one point he amended earlier testimony that he had received a cash bribe from Rabbi Korach in the amount of 5000 Shekels. He said the money was in fact a charitable contribution. Shlomo Tussia-Cohen, the chief counsel for the defense, demanded that the case be dismissed but the judges denied his motion.