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Netanyahu denies allegation of secret deal on appointee

JERUSALEM, Jan. 26 (JTA) — Allegations of government misconduct have led to prompt denials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a call from at least one government minister for Israel Television to be shut down if the charges prove false. As word of the alleged misconduct filled the Israeli media this week, the country’s highest prosecutor ordered a police investigation into alleged corruption surrounding the short-lived appointment of Jerusalem lawyer Roni Bar-On as attorney general. “The supreme national interest required that we uncover the true circumstances of the appointment,” Edna Arbel, state attorney and acting attorney general, said Sunday after two hours of consultations with senior police officials. Word of the police investigation came amid reports that Elyakim Rubinstein, a Jerusalem District Court judge, who is widely respected in legal and political circles, had agreed to become Israel’s next attorney general. The allegations surrounding Bar-On’s appointment surfaced last week, when Israel Television reported that the Shas Party, which has two ministers in the government and 10 seats in the Knesset, had promised to back the Hebron agreement when it came before the Cabinet and Parliament earlier this month in exchange for Bar-On’s appointment. According to the report, Bar-On in turn agreed to a plea bargain for Shas Knesset member Aryeh Deri, who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of public trust. Netanyahu flatly denied the charges last Friday, calling for a police investigation into the allegations. Two days after the Cabinet approved his appointment as attorney general earlier this month, Bar-On turned down the position. Bar-On, a Likud activist, had come under intense criticism from government and legal circles, which charged that he had gotten the appointment because of his political loyalties and close association with Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. Bar-On had been picked to replace Michael Ben-Yair, who announced his resignation in December. Police investigators met Sunday with officials from Israel Television, who said they would not compromise their journalistic ethics to reveal the sources of their report. When launching the probe, Arbel instructed police investigators to obtain the evidence on which Israel Television based its report, by court order if necessary. The alleged deal drew sharp reactions from government ministers at last Friday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “If the claims are not true, then the television must be closed down,” Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav was quoted as saying. Asked what should be done if the allegations were proven true, Katsav told reporters, “In that case, the government does not have the right to exist.” Deri denied in a Channel 2 Television interview any truth to the claims, adding that he has been hounded by the media for the past seven years. Meanwhile, Hanegbi announced that Rubinstein had accepted an offer to become attorney general. Rubinstein, 50, was made district judge two years ago. Prior to that, he was a member of the Israeli delegation in the peace talks with Egypt, and he led the Israeli negotiating team in peace talks with Jordan. He has also served as Cabinet secretary. Netanyahu and Hanegbi asked Rubinstein last Friday to take the position. He requested a few days to think it over, and later accepted. His nomination was expected to be brought before the Cabinet this week.