So Netanyahu Was Possibly Politically Funded by a French Tycoon. But Was It Illegal?

If Netanuyahu received the donation as a private citizen, as he says, then he is not guilty of any crime.

Arnaud Mimran and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bertrand Guay, AFP/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are tight-fisted and love receiving gifts. But have they learned to act much more cautiously since Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in the late 1990s?

Previous prime ministers and senior politicians have been dragged through criminal investigations. Ehud Olmert spent much of his term under a cloud of suspicion. Ariel Sharon saw his son convicted of campaign finance violations, and also came under investigation himself for such cases as the Greek Isle and Cyril Kern affairs. Ehud Barak also had a campaign finance probe to deal with during his short term as prime minister.

Netanyahu too has been accused of corruption and other ethical violations, but has managed to weather these allegations based in part on the experience he gained in doing so during his first term in office. At the time he was accused of supporting the appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general as part of a political deal. But the case never made it to trial and Netanyahu emerged unscathed.

The investigation into gifts supposedly taken from the Prime Minister’s Residence and various services the Netanyahus received from the contractor Avner Amedi were more troubling, but also wound up exacting a very minimal political cost, with these cases closed in late 2000.

Netanyahu has never stopped accepting favors, gifts, trips and payments since that time. But what would be the likelihood that he would accept huge sums of money illegally less than a year after escaping the earlier gifts scandal by the skin of his teeth? Logic would dictate this to be very unlikely, though it's always possible that Netanyahu operates under a different type of logic.

French media say that Arnaud Mimran, the main suspect in a so-called “fraud of the century,” claims he gave Netanyahu 1 million euros for his election campaign in 2009. But Monday, Mimran told Israel's Channel 10 television that the sum was 170,000 euros, and that the donation was made in 2001.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit cannot launch an official investigation as yet, before the Justice Ministry obtains the transcripts of Mimran’s testimony to the court in France.

Netanyahu has confirmed that he received $40,000 from Mimran in 2001 as a private individual (he had ceased serving as prime minister in 1999), and even were he to have been considered a politician at the time, the statute of limitations has already passed on the 2001 case.

It would not have been a violation of the law for Netanyahu to accept funds from Mimran as a private citizen, no matter whether they were destined for political purposes. Under the law, a private individual is allowed to accept money for political use, and even today there appear to be former politicians on a break in their careers, raising funds for potential future political activities.

Netanyahu said in his press release that the money he received from Mimran was used for public activities while he was a private citizen, as part of a fund for public relations on Israel’s behalf. Any private individual can receive money for such purposes. If the funds were a gift, it is very likely that no tax violations were committed, either.

If Mimran was telling the truth by saying he donated the money for political use in 2009, then it may have been in violation of campaign finance laws. The Prime Minister’s Bureau denies the money was received at that time. It is also hard to believe that Netanyahu would have risked breaking the law by accepting such a large sum at that time.

When Netanyahu returned to politics, he was required to provide the State Comptroller with a declaration of assets according to regulations governing conflicts of interest for cabinet ministers and their deputies. Such declarations are not made public, but a partial or false disclosure can be regarded as a criminal offense. Tzachi Hanegbi was convicted in 2010 of providing a false declaration and although he was not sentenced to prison, he found himself exiled from politics for a number of months.

Still, legal scholars are divided over whether it would be considered as a crime if Netanyahu did not properly report his assets. Jerusalem District Court, which acquitted Olmert in his first trial for having allegedly accepted envelopes filled with cash from American businessman Moshe Talansky, did not rule out that his failure to report about the money was potentially a breach of trust crime. The Supreme Court has yet to decide this issue in the course of Olmert's appeals.

For now, Comptroller Joseph Shapira has not investigated Netanyahu’s declarations of assets and it seems unlikely he will do so. First it must be determined whether Netanyahu received any money he should have reported about. If Mandelblit finds such suspicions, he may ask Shapira to look into the matter. Until then, Mimran can just go on generating headlines in Israel and France.