Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu
Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu on their way to Washington, D.C. Photo by Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO
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Emil Salman
Shai Nitzan Photo by Emil Salman
Shiran Granot
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira. Photo by Shiran Granot

The coalition's hand-picked state comptroller has decided to fire his office's chief investigator into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nahum Levy, a former police commander with long experience in conducting investigations, was hired by comptroller Joseph Shapira's predecessor, Micha Lindenstrauss, as his special adviser on corruption. For the past year, Levy has devoted most of his time to investigating the financing of overseas trips taken by Netanyahu and his wife Sara while Netanyahu was still an ordinary Knesset member, before he became prime minister in 2009 for the second time.

Levy even questioned Netanyahu twice about this funding, which allegedly came from businessmen and various organizations, and drafted a document saying the couple's behavior raised suspicions of improprieties. Now, however, he will be forced to vacate his post in another few weeks.

Levy's appointment as chief investigator in the case (popularly known as "Bibi Tours") upset the prime minister and his inner circle. A senior member of Netanyahu's Likud party even asked Lindenstrauss not to assign Levy to the case, on the grounds that over a decade ago, Levy served as head of the police team that investigated another case against Netanyahu.

In that case, which involved his first term as premier (1996-99 ), Netanyahu was suspected of having the Prime Minister's Office pay for work done by a contractor in his private home. Levy thought there was enough evidence to indict him, but then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein deemed the evidence insufficient and closed the case.

Shapira was elected state comptroller by the Knesset with strong backing from Netanyahu, whose decision stemmed in part from the recommendation of his personal lawyer, David Shimron. Before the vote, which pitted Shapira against former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin, he met with Netanyahu twice at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem. The former district court judge also met with other politicians, including Shas party chairman Eli Yishai and Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich.

But the new comptroller, who took office in July, doesn't think the support he received from Netanyahu should disqualify him from handling an investigation into the premier. "Given that the Knesset elected the comptroller with a majority of 68 Knesset members out of the 106 Knesset members present in the plenum, from the moment of that vote, there is no place to discuss disqualifying the comptroller," Shapira's office said in a statement.

A few weeks ago, Shapira hosted a discussion of the "Bibi Tours" case in his office. Immediately afterward, Tomer Zarchin reported in Haaretz that the comptroller was considering transferring to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin all the material about Netanyahu's trips, on the grounds that Netanyahu was an ordinary MK at the time, and the comptroller has no authority to deal with alleged improprieties by MKs; his authority only covers the executive branch. This was the legal argument put forth by Shimron, Netanyahu's attorney, and Shapira was apparently considering adopting it.

The Haaretz report sparked an outcry against Shapira, and critics accused him of serving the man who put him in office. In conversations with associates, Shapira rejected this claim. But he is still hesitating over what to do with this material.

In conversations with associates, Shapira said he decided to oust Levy partly because Levy's job is what is known as a position of trust - one that requires the holder to have the complete confidence of his superior - and Shapira would prefer someone else in this position. He also argued that politicians have largely ceased engaging in overt corruption, so he would rather focus his office's efforts on more complex and less visible corruption cases.

Finally, he denied any intent to close the "special assignments" unit that Lindenstrauss set up. This unit specialized in public corruption cases, such as excess salary payments at the Bank of Israel and the various cases against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The comptroller's office reiterated this denial in an official statement. "Not only is the state comptroller not considering dismantling the special assignments unit, which deals, inter alia, with corruption and ethics cases, but he intends to strengthen the fight against these problems in the near future," it said. "The comptroller believes that activity by the State Comptroller's Office, the media and the general public has contributed greatly in recent years to exposing corruption and impropriety, such that today, there is a need to invest greater effort in uncovering acts of corruption and impropriety, which are becoming more sophisticated every day. Accordingly, we must strengthen the battle against corruption and impropriety by deploying our office suitably."