How the Affair That Could Have Destroyed Netanyahu’s Political Career Was Buried

The journalist who broke the ‘Bibi-Tours’ story in 2011 details how a potentially damning report into the prime minister’s travel arrangements between 2003-2005 suffered delay after delay by figures close to the premier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 22, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Five years after the investigative TV report into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – which became known as the “Bibi-Tours” affair – was broadcast on Channel 10, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira finally published his report on the matter this week. The report’s timing renders it meaningless for all practical purposes, with some of the gravest findings about Netanyahu’s overseas travel arrangements while finance minister between 2003 and 2005 missing from it.

I don’t know whether the findings would have led to an indictment of a serving prime minister – even if there had been a more energetic investigation from the get-go. However, I am pretty certain that, politically, Benjamin Netanyahu would not have survived such an investigation.

Just look at what’s developing now with French businessman Arnaud Mimran – one of the dozens of donors whose names appeared in Netanyahu’s books of supporters but who is now under investigation for kidnapping, theft and extortion.

Then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Shapira have saved Netanyahu. I really hope they did this out of negligence, cowardice or who knows what else – and not for other reasons.

When the two-part Bibi-Tours report was first broadcast in March 2011, I was careful to say on air that we were not claiming Netanyahu had done anything criminal. That was half right. You didn’t need to be a top lawyer to understand that some of the things we revealed were sufficient reason for an investigation, at least: We broadcast information about flights taken by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, that were paid for by businesspeople (some of whom had businesses in Israel). We reported on aides to Netanyahu receiving a salary from one of the businessmen close to him, while they were still working for Netanyahu. Regarding some of Netanyahu’s overseas visits, we showed that the same trip had been paid for twice, by two different organizations.

There is no problem in attaching to these acts prima facie criminal violations. But I didn’t want to be the one pushing for an investigation. The attorney general, I assumed, knew exactly how to interpret the findings.

And beyond that, I must admit – the pressure being exerted on Channel 10 not to broadcast the story, to water it down, delay it, edit it down, was so great, I didn’t think it right to exacerbate the intensity of a conflict that was so huge anyway. However, in the two years that followed the broadcast of the reports on “The Source,” Netanyahu hounded me, tried to get me fired and, worst of all, gave Channel 10 a really hard time.

Tremendous pressure

The channel’s CEO, Yossi Varshavsky, heroically withstood tremendous pressure. The shareholders – especially Netanyahu’s close associate, Ronald Lauder – really disliked the investigative report, to say the least. According to various reports, from the outset Lauder bought shares in Channel 10 allegedly through Netanyahu’s mediation. Maybe Netanyahu assumed that Lauder would look out for his interests at the channel.

The relationship between the two men is long and significant (in financial terms). During the period when the report was broadcast in 2011, Lauder was the channel’s sole financial backer. Nothing threatened Lauder more than the loss of his relationship with Netanyahu as a result of a report broadcast on his own channel. If there is anything positive to emerge from this affair, it’s the fact that Big Money didn’t succeed in influencing the content. To Lauder’s displeasure, the report was broadcast undoctored.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira
Moti Milrod

After the report aired, Knesset members contacted the attorney general demanding that he launch an investigation. To the best of my knowledge, he never replied to them (Weinstein was attorney general until earlier this year). However, then-State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss started an investigation immediately, delegating it to Commander (ret.) Nahum Levy, a former senior police officer who had served in the anti-fraud unit and worked on previous probes into both Netanyahu and Arye Dery.

At our first meeting, Levy looked stunned by the strength of the material. He also looked frustrated, almost desperate. “I wish the previous investigations into Dery and Netanyahu had a tenth of what we have here,” he told me. “This is [great] material for a police investigation.”

I remember giving him an authentic document in which one of Netanyahu’s aides had written, in real time, how many checks had been given by each of the wealthy individuals close to Netanyahu for his primary campaign (although the individual amounts at the overseas fundraising event didn’t exceed the maximum allowed, the donors wrote more than one check, which the law prohibits).

Despite this “smoking gun,” Levy made it pretty clear from the off that there was no way the comptroller would reopen the earlier report into Netanyahu’s primaries funding and start rummaging through it. To be honest, Levy looked lost, because it was clear to me that the affair required a large team.

I called Levy a few months later. “There’s a man who says he was a direct eyewitness to a direct transfer of cash. He says he saw an Israeli called Dedi Graucher [a businessman and Orthodox singer] give Bibi’s personal drive a bundle of cash. He is prepared to come to you and talk about it.”

Levy called back the following day. “This is unbelievable, it’s bigger than Talansky [referring to the cash-in-envelopes case involving an American businessman and Ehud Olmert]! How come you didn’t broadcast this?”

Tomer Appelbaum

“The witness wasn’t willing,” I replied, “but he has agreed to go to you.”

There was also a female witness to the same event. There was also an interesting recording. An effective police force would have been able to get to the root of the matter within 24 hours, but it seemed to me that Attorney General Weinstein didn’t want to get involved.

Levy tried to investigate on his own. As is known, he didn’t have the authority to force the witness, driver or businessman to talk.

Instead, Netanyahu received a request in writing (!) to respond to the claim. He denied it. How surprising. Soon there were also denials from both the driver and Graucher, which included a story about the driver’s financial problems that Graucher – out of the kindness of his heart – had tried to solve. It later emerged that this was one of the issues the attorney general had passed along for police investigation. Predictably, Weinstein did not report on the matter publicly and Netanyahu wasn’t called in for questioning – neither about this matter nor about anything else.

At one point, I heard that the police were investigating the witnesses’ story about the alleged cash transfer to the driver. That was during the 2013 election campaign. I addressed a query to the attorney general’s spokesman. Yes, there had been a police inquiry into the specified testimony, the adviser confirmed, but the police advised that it be closed, so that – heaven forbid – we won’t think Netanyahu is suspected of anything.

The attorney general acted similarly in the matter of investigating spending at the prime minister’s residences. There, too, Weinstein made it clear that Netanyahu was not suspected of anything.

Audition for comptroller

In the summer of 2012, a new state comptroller assumed office. Joseph Shapira was handpicked by Netanyahu and his people. Shapira even went to a kind of audition at the prime minister’s residence, where he had the honor of meeting Sara Netanyahu. The premier allegedly used all of his political might and secured a victory for Shapira over his rival, former Supreme Court Deputy President Eliezer Rivlin.

When Shapira took office, he met Nahum Levy. Shapira explained how pleased he was with Levy’s performance and that he would continue to back him. Levy had endured an unpleasant experience a few months before: Netanyahu, via his family lawyer David Shimron, had contacted Lindenstrauss, demanding that Levy not be allowed to continue to investigate the Bibi-Tours affair. Levy had said something personal against the prime minister since the previous investigation, they said.

Netanyahu allegedly also sent Likud MK Yariv Levin (now Tourism Minister) to the comptroller with the same claim. Lindenstrauss brushed them off.

Shapira now faced a dilemma. What should he do with the report Levy had written? As well as detailing Netanyahu’s actions while finance minister, the investigation also probed Netanyahu’s trips as an MK and as leader of the opposition, positions the comptroller is not authorized to investigate.

The comptroller proposed an idea – let’s submit it to the Knesset speaker. What could the speaker do with it? Nothing. His advisers explained to him that this didn’t really make sense. Nevertheless, word of the ingenious idea spread and Shapira ended up having to share the report with the attorney general, Weinstein.

Luckily for him, Weinstein is just as good when it comes to burying such things. The report probably served as the source of paper airplanes for the AG. And since then, we have heard nothing about the report and its findings.

Weinstein asked the Justice Ministry to respond on his behalf to this story: “Close to the time of the broadcast of the investigative reports in 2011, the then-attorney general ordered an examination of the matter. All the material that was received was examined in depth. We know of no request for the transfer of additional materials for our examination that has been refused. The previous attorney general’s decision not to continue to look into the matter in the criminal channel was taken in accordance with the recommendations of the police and prosecution.”

At the beginning of September 2012, Shapira suddenly summoned Levy. He informed the retired police commander that he had changed his mind and was no longer interested in retaining his services. Of course, this announcement had absolutely no connection with the prime minister’s demand to replace Levy.

At the end of 2012, the first draft of the comptroller’s report on the trips taken by Netanyahu and his family while he was finance minister was ready. Had it been published then, perhaps it would have influenced the 2013 Knesset election. Perhaps it would still have been possible to pressure the attorney general into opening a real investigation. But Shapira didn’t publish it. His justification was that the attorney general was looking into the matter.

Before the 2015 election, after what must have been the 400th postponement of the report’s publication, I decided to publish the main points of the draft. The comptroller went bananas. He recalled that the letter of the law prohibits publication of drafts. Until then, and subsequently, he’s never had a problem with their publication. With this one, though, he had a problem.

At long last, he finally published the report on Tuesday. He excised some of the harshest words that had appeared in the draft, like “ethical impropriety,” and eliminated the gravest findings about double funding and redirecting funds to other needs on the miserable grounds that he had (again) sent it to the new attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit.

For this VIP treatment, Shapira most probably thought the prime minister would at the very least arrange an amendment to the law that would allow him to serve another term as comptroller. Instead, he has recently been brutally attacked by the prime minister, who called him – following the leaking of the draft report on the cabinet’s performance during Operation Protective Edge – an “unserious” comptroller.

Response from the State Comptroller’s Office

* In response to the claim concerning Levy’s dismissal: “Mr. Nahum Levy was never dismissed. He was an adviser to the former state comptroller, Justice (ret.) Micha Lindenstrauss, in a position of trust.”

* In response to the claim concerning the length of time it took to write the current report: “The first transfer of materials to the attorney general was made when the first draft of the comptroller’s report was already complete. At that stage Mr. Netanyahu’s response was required, which necessitated transferring the materials of the report to him. The attorney general’s examination did not enable transfer of materials. Without transfer of the materials to Mr. Netanyahu, his right to review and make claims – to which every person under review is entitled – was not enabled. At this stage, it was not possible to continue the work without having received his response. In September 2014, the attorney general allowed the comptroller to transfer the materials, paving the way for further work.”

* Concerning the claim that an attempt was made to bury the document about Netanyahu’s trips as leader of the opposition: “The State Comptroller’s Office is not authorized to examine a Knesset member even if he is the leader of the opposition.”

* Concerning the claim about the excision from the document of the gravest parts, even though they were already known to Netanyahu, and the publication of a press release to the effect that the materials had already been transferred, while I myself had been asked to approve transfer of some of the materials one day before publication of the report: “The materials that Drucker transferred included, among others, many materials that had been received from other sources. Most of the materials had already been sent in the past to the attorney general, even before the request to Drucker. Ultimately, the materials were of a very marginal extent relative to the aggregate of materials that were transferred. The attorney general was aware that there are additional materials in our possession that had not been transferred to him, and we applied to Drucker in coordination with the attorney general – and only after the attorney general made this possible with the intention of not damaging the investigation that is being conducted by him, and those that have been underway for some time now. Drucker’s claim in this context borders on blatant bad faith. He himself asked that the materials not be transferred and we scrupulously respected his request. Now too he himself has refused to allow transfer of certain materials.”

“Excising certain portions of the report was necessitated by the attorney general’s examination and with the aim of preventing possible interference with the investigation; even if some of the things have been published one way or another in the media, their status is different when they are written in a State Comptroller’s Report. The attorney general’s examination, which began even before publication of the report, did not allow for transfer of materials in the last stage to various relevant individuals (beyond Mr. Netanyahu), without whose responses it was not possible to include those materials in the report.”