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Attorney general rejects claims that bias entered Bar-On affair

JERUSALEM, April 24 (JTA) — Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has rejected charges that ethnic or religious bias played a role in his decision to indict Aryeh Deri in connection with the Bar-On affair. Rubinstein’s statement on Thursday marked his first public remarks since announcing his decision to indict the Shas leader for allegedly seeking the January appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general in exchange for a plea bargain in his own ongoing corruption trial. In their announcement Sunday, Rubinstein and State Attorney Edna Arbel did not indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi or other top officials, citing lack of sufficient evidence. Supporters of Deri, who heads the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, held a mass rally Wednesday at which they charged that an anti-Sephardi bias had led to his indictment. The backbone of Shas support comes from religious Jews of Sephardi background. At the rally in Jerusalem, Deri accused the “Zionist establishment” of trying to subvert Sephardi culture. Similar remarks were heard by other speakers at the rally, despite President Ezer Weizman’s appeal to Shas not to blame the indictments on “the ethnic card.” On Thursday, Rubinstein said the evidence presented by police had provided the sole basis for his recommendations. Rubinstein’s remarks came in the wake of reports this week that in their final deliberations, he and Arbel had ignored three senior prosecutors who believed that there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu and Hanegbi. According to Israeli media reports, the three prosecutors outlined their view in a detailed 15-page internal document that said there was sufficient evidence to show that Netanyahu appointed Bar-On exclusively or mostly due to pressure from Deri. Deri’s lawyer said this week that the three had also written that if indictments were not recommended against Netanyahu and Hanegbi, then none should be recommended against Deri, since such a move would appear questionable. Rubinstein and Arbel have refused to release the internal document, which several groups have demanded in order to back up petitions they submitted to the High Court of Justice seeking to overturn the attorney general’s decision not to indict Netanyahu and Hanegbi. Bar-On won Cabinet approval Jan. 10, but stepped down two days later amid growing charges in political and legal spheres that he lacked the experience to hold Israel’s top legal post. Two weeks later, the Cabinet unanimously approved Rubinstein to serve as Israel’s attorney general. A three-month police investigation was launched after an Israel Television report alleged that Bar-On was appointed as part of a deal to provide a plea bargain to Deri. In a 995-page report submitted last week to Rubinstein and Arbel, police investigators had recommended that charges be brought against Netanyahu and Hanegbi. Meanwhile, the political storm swirling around Netanyahu over the Bar-On affair appears for the most part to have subsided, with his government no longer facing the imminent threat of collapse. Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and the Third Way parties each announced Monday that they would remain in the coalition as long as measures were taken to ensure good government. Coalition partners have been pressing for the removal of Hanegbi from the justice portfolio, saying that Rubinstein and Arbel had found grave improprieties in Hanegbi’s handling of Bar-On’s nomination and appointment. Responding to demands by coalition partners that Netanyahu change the way his government functions, the prime minister announced this week that he was naming Finance Minister Dan Meridor of Likud and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah to head a senior ministerial committee on civil servant appointments.

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