Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Bloomberg
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Producing oil in Iran. Photo by Reuters

The news, reported Monday by TheMarker, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had requested permission to make changes to his investment portfolio but withdrew the request when it was put on the cabinet's agenda, has elicited exactly the kind of reaction that he was presumably trying to avoid.

While the prime minister's attorney was on damage-control duty, holding a conference call with reporters to explain his client's motives, opposition politicians and social activists were busy issuing indignant soundbites.

In the space of one month Netanyahu changed his position on revisions to his domestic and foreign investment portfolios in two separate communications to the State Comptroller's Office. In late July he asked the exceptions committee in the comptroller's agency for permission to change the composition of his holdings. But a month later Netanyahu went back to the panel and retracted his request.

On August 15 the committee, which is headed by retired Judge Ezrah Kamma, approved the earlier request in principle but stipulated that the cabinet must extend the right requested by Netanyahu to all government officials who are required to place their assets in a blind trust for the duration of their office.

In its decision, committee members noted that the massive changes affecting the global economy in general and the Israeli economy in particular justified the creation of a mechanism that would allow officials to amend their investment decisions in the course of their terms.

That seemed to be the end of the matter, and the exceptions committee scheduled a meeting for October 10 to revisit Netanyahu's request. But on August 22 Netanyahu, in a letter to State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, withdrew his request for permission to change his investments, explaining that he had decided "not to go forward with the matter in order to prevent the possibility of misinterpretation" of the request.

Netanyahu specified in the letter that the existing protocol should remain in effect, but added that when the next government was established he planned to propose the agreement in advance on one specific date, perhaps midway through the term, when cabinet members could amend their instructions to their trustees.

Attorney David Shimron, who submitted Netanyahu's application for permission to change his portfolio in July, yesterday declined to provide details of the prime minister's investments, saying only, "The portfolio is the most conservative thing you could possibly imagine."

During his conference-call press briefing Shimron was asked why Netanyahu had sought to change his portfolio, if it was so conservative. The attorney said it was a question of trying to preserve the value of holdings in light of the European economic crisis.

"In the past year, and even before, I talked with the prime minister about the need to make changes to his portfolio, which is very conservative, in light of the global economic changes," Shimron related.

Iran connection is 'pathetic'

"The committee told me the change appeared necessary and recommended putting the cabinet secretary on the matter. As soon as I informed the prime minister he said it would be used as a political weapon against him and that no changes should be made. From the prime minister's perspective it's not a catastrophe if there's a slight erosion in his portfolio, and if a new government is formed then that would be the appropriate time" to make the change to the protocol. If there's a need we'll do it in the future, not now. The idea of a connection to Iran or to anything is pathetic," he added.

"I didn't think it was about Iran. As soon as the prime minister heard that the committee decided [to approve the request] he realized that immediately. There's nothing to it, it's absolutely a storm in a teacup. The focus on it and the attacks are superfluous, that's why Netanyahu prefers not making a change to his portfolio rather than generating an unnecessary storm," Shimron said.

Netanyahu's assets are managed by Bank Discount's trust company. The bank Monday said it does not disclose information about its clients.