Hirschson after sentencing
Hirschson after sentencingIsrael news photo: Flash 90

Two former Israeli ministers, Shlomo Benizri of Shas and Avraham Hirschson of Kadima, began serving jail sentences on Tuesday. Benizri began a four-year term for taking bribes, while Hirschson began a five year and five months term for theft.

Hirschson was convicted of taking millions of shekels from the Histadrut National Workers' Organization when he served as chairman. On Tuesday morning he drove to the Hermon prison, where he will be held in a cell with three other prisoners, and will be expected to work in either cleaning, cooking, factory labor, or leading a program for other prisoners.

Hirschson and his family refused to speak to journalists, except to say, “This is obviously a difficult situation.”

Benizri will serve his sentence in Masiyahu prison, in a special unit for religiously observant prisoners. He and his supporters spoke freely with the media, accusing Israel's courts of bias against Shas.

Benizri has proclaimed his innocence throughout his trial and sentencing, and says personal donations and similar matters were mistaken for bribes. Benizri said Tuesday morning that he had received “hundreds of calls” from supporters “hurting over the injustice done to me.”

Benizri enters prison as supporters protest

"All in all, he's just a minister whose friend donated to a yeshiva,” said former MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler. Hirschson admitted to stealing millions over the course of years and was sentenced to five years in prison, he said, while Benizri got four years for a far less serious offense in order to “send a message.” "The state of Israel is waging war on religious and haredi people,” Rabbi Eichler accused.

Katzav Trial Opens

As Hirschson and Benizri prepared to serve their sentences, former President Moshe Katzav began his trial in the Tel Aviv District Court. Hearings in the case will be held behind closed doors.

Katzav is accused of sexually assaulting two women and of raping a third. The affair came to light after Katzav contacted Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to accuse a former worker of blackmailing him; the worker then reported that Katzav had raped her twice when she worked for him in the Tourism Ministry.

After an investigation lasting more than a year, Mazuz offered Katzav a plea bargain under which he would admit to sexual misconduct, but more serious charges, including that of rape, would be dropped. Katzav initially agreed to the bargain, but later called it off, insisting that he would prove his innocence in court.

Tuesday's hearing included testimony from one of the two women accusing Katzav of sexual misconduct. The woman has accused Katzav of making comments about her appearance and asking about her dating life when they worked together, and at one point, of hugging her tightly.

Rivlin: Those Who are Corrupt Must Pay

Tuesday was “a sad day for the Knesset, which is making tremendous efforts to improve its public image,” said Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Speaking to Denmark's Ambassador to Israel, Liselotte Plesner, Rivlin expressed sorrow over the affairs involving Hirschson and Benizri, but expressed hope that their sentences would begin a process of real change.

"Whoever was corrupt and was convicted in a court of law must pay the price for his acts,” Rivlin said. “Maybe this will be the key to changing the current atmosphere in the halls of power.”