Israeli police query Begin Cabinet minister on alleged misuse of funds

A member of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Cabinet is under intensive police interrogation for alleged misappropriation of public funds and the receipt of bribes in return for favors -- a fact that is casting a long shadow over Mr. Begin's fractious coalition government.

To make matters worse, the official answering questions in marathon sessions at police headquarters here is none other than the minister for religious affairs, Aharon Abu- Hazeira. He is the scion of a distinguished line of Moroccan rabbis, a man whose very position symbolizes the highest ethical and moral standards.

The youthful minister, whose selection for the delicate job of dealing with the Holy Land's multitude of faiths, Christian and Muslim, Druze and Bahai, as well as Jewish, raised many eyebrows, has been the subject of sensational disclosures in the Israeli news media.

These leaks, for which the police deny responsibility, suggest that Mr. Abu-Hazeira used his budget to buy votes for the National Religious Party (NRP) or recycled cash allocations for allegedly nonexistent Talmudical academies into his own pocket.

Here is a brief catalogue of alleged misdeeds published in the Jerusalem newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth:

* Acceptance of a $10,000 bribe from a "yeshiva" (Talmudical academy) in Bnai Brak (an orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv) in return for which his ministry granted it an enlarged subsidy.

* Issuance of a $25,000 grant to the head of a suburban Jerusalem religious council in favor of a society known as "Torah from Zion," is believed to be fictitious.

* Receipt of bribes from local businessmen in return for cancellation of municipal restrictions while serving in his previous post as mayor of the city of Ramle.

These and other allegations evidently are being raised in the continuing interrogation -- the first of its kind in Israel's history. Never before has an incumbent Cabinet minister faced a battery of police interrogators.

In Mr. Abu-Hazeira's case, the outcome of the probe will determine whether the police apply for the minister's parliamentary immunity to be waived so that he can stand trial.

In this unprecedented and politically embarrassing situation, a former attorney general who served during one of the opposition Labor Party's past governments has publicly demanded that Mr. Abu-Hazeira be relieved of his Cabinet post pending the inquiry's results.

But there is more to the case than eligibility for holding high public office. There also is the negative light shed on the subsidization of institutions belonging to Israel's orthodox segment of society and the consequent linkage between allocations and support for the pivotal National Religious Party. (The NRP has managed to serve in Labor Party as well as Likud coalition Cabinets.)

Israel's majority of secularist Jews draw no comfort from knowing that their taxes are channeled to institutions whose staff and wards have a vested interest in the permanent involvement of the NRP in government.

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