Letter to Rich U.S. Jew Sheds Light on Netanyahu’s Ties to Foreign Backers

Israeli Prime Minister writes letter of recommendation for Nefesh B'Nefesh founder who used to pay him tens of thousands of dollars to give lectures abroad.

An effusive letter of recommendation that Benjamin Netanyahu signed for a Jewish-American businessman nearly 10 years ago while serving as foreign minister gives evidence of the reciprocal relationships between the prime minister and some of his monied supporters abroad.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, praises the high morals, family values and business acumen of Tony Gelbart, chairman and co-founder of Nefesh B'Nefesh. When Netanyahu was a private citizen, following his first term as prime minister that ended in 1999, Gelbart paid him tens of thousands of dollars to give lectures abroad. He later donated tens of thousands of shekels to Netanyahu's Likud primary campaign.

Gelbart, who lives in Florida, is active in a number of Zionist organizations, but Nefesh B'Nefesh, which he helped found in 2002 to advance Jewish immigration to Israel from Western nations, is chief among them. He notes on the organization's website that he is president and CEO of Old City Partners LLC, an investment company based in Boca Raton, Florida with holdings in both the United States and Israel.

An investigation conducted last year by Israel's Channel 10 news reporter Raviv Drucker pointed to close ties between Netanyahu and Gelbart: Gelbart's entry in Netanyahu's address book, for example, says "business friend, lives in Florida, rich, can sometimes help and bring donors, he has the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization." Drucker reported that one of Netanyahu's sources of income when he was a private citizen was to charge for arranging meetings, $8,000 per meeting. Gelbart was among the people with whom he arranged meetings. Netanyahu also gave lectures for Gelbart, for a fee of no less than $40,000. On one occasion when Netanyahu went abroad Gelbart, footed the $6,500 bill for Netanyahu's wife, Sara.

The financial ties between the two continued even after Netanyahu returned to politics. In 2005 Netanyahu reported to the State Comptroller's Office a contribution of $7,800 from Gelbart for his primary campaign. In 2007, again for a Likud primary campaign, he reported an additional donation from Gelbart of NIS 38,000.

The documents obtained by Haaretz indicate that the relationship was reciprocal. Netanyahu was appointed foreign minister in November 2002, and toward the end of February 2003, a few days before he became finance minister, Gelbart sent a draft recommendation letter for himself to George Birnbaum, a U.S. political consultant who today is a partner of Arthur Finkelstein, who advised Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister and after he left office.

Birnbaum faxed the letter to the Foreign Ministry, appending a cover letter in which he addressed Netanyahu's secretary by her first name and asked her: "Please have Mr. Netanyahu review, put on his letterhead, sign and fax back by Friday afternoon if possible. It is very urgent. Thank you. [signed] George."

Haaretz has obtained a copy of the draft that Gelbart wrote and of the letter after it was signed. The letter of recommendation, addressed February 28, 2003, says: "To Whom It May Concern: I consider Tony Gelbart a good friend. Over the past several years, I have come to know him as a business man [sic], a philanthropist and close confidant. As a business man [sic], family man and friend, I find that Tony exemplifies the highest standards of integrity and commitment.

"Tony's commitment to strengthening the State of Israel as a country, and his commitment to businesses and creating jobs have proven an invaluable asset to me and the State of Israel. In addition, his tireless efforts also strengthen the ties of both people and businesses between the United States and Israel.

"Having recently met with him, I am confident more than ever that he will continue his efforts with the utmost concern, passion and ethics.

[signed] Benjamin Netanyahu."

In response to a query from Haaretz, Gelbart wrote: "Over the years I have received many letters of recommendation and endorsement from prominent individuals for my work on behalf of the Jewish people both in the U.S.A. and Israel. I can't recall this specific one which you are enquiring about. Furthermore, I don't remember funding any flight for Mrs. Netanyahu which you say occurred 12 or 13 years ago." The Prime Minister's Office said in response: "Tony Gelbart, one of the founders of Nefesh B'Nefesh, which encourages Jewish immigration to Israel, is among the greatest contributors to the state. The prime minister would be happy to continue to praise any individual whose contribution to the state is as great."

Birnbaum could not be reached for comment.

John Gandel, an Australian billionaire businessman and philanthropist who helped bankroll the Israeli government's "computer for every child" program, is another wealthy Netanyahu friend. In the past he and the Australian Gandel Group were represented in Israel by Ori Yogev, an economist who is close to Netanyahu and who has worked with him on numerous occasions.

In 2004, when Gandel turned 70, Netanyahu not only sent his own birthday greeting but also tried to arrange for one from then-President Moshe Katsav.

In August of that year Netanyahu's office manager, Tzipi Navon, sent a request to presidential aide Moshe Goral on official letterhead. "Pursuant to our conversation by phone, please send me the president's birthday greeting to John Gandel by fax to [the office fax number]. Thank you, Tzipi."

In a response, the Prime Minister's Office said: "John Gandel, among the largest contributors to the 'computer for every child' project, is also deserving of thanks on behalf of the state. A greeting for his 70th birthday is an appropriate and personal act."