Comptroller Mulled Changing Panel Examining PM’s Request for Legal Funding

The possible change came as the panel was in the process of rejecting Netanyahu's request to collect funds from wealthy businessmen to fund his legal fees in three criminal investigations

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial ceremony, March 14, 2019.
Emil Salman

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira seriously considered replacing members on the committee in his office that was dealing with a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for approval to accept funds for legal fees from wealthy businessmen, according to sources.

The possible change in the composition of the panel came as the panel was in the process of rejecting the request, which, if approved, would allow the prime minister to collect outside funding for legal fees in three criminal investigations against him

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Sources have told Haaretz that Shapira had apparently sought the dismissal of attorney Nurit Yisraeli from the panel. Yisraeli had once been a legal adviser to the comptroller’s office.

Yisraeli, who along with committee chairman Awni Habash was considered one of the more aggressive opponents of the prime minister’s request, had recently considered resigning from the panel and refused to respond to requests for comment from Haaretz.

Shapira later backed away from the idea over concerns that it would damage his reputation.

In recent weeks, Shapira expected that Netanyahu would appeal to the Supreme Court over the committee’s rejection of the funding for his legal expenses in the criminal investigations. As a result, it was Shapira’s expectation that the committee would rehear the matter. Consideration of the prime minister’s request generated tension between Shapira and some committee members,who felt he was not being supportive as a result of pressure that was being exerted on him.

A knowledgeable source said Shapira didn’t like the committee’s aggressive position and that his desire to change the composition of the panel was the product of a desire “to be liked again by groups whose opinions he regards as important.”

The committee has six members. When a request is filed, the comptroller chooses three of them to consider it. Two weeks ago Habash, who is a retired judge, announced that he would be stepping down from the committee due to political pressure. Shapira must now replace him. Although another retired judge, Ezra Kama, had chaired the panel in the past, Shapira is not expected to reappoint him to replace Habash and is instead expected to look for another senior judicial figure.

Shapira, who was himself appointed state comptroller with Netanyahu’s support and with assistance from confidants of the prime minister’s (including Netanyahu’s lawyer, David Shimron, and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman), was seen in his initial years as someone whom the government could easily live with. Later his attitude toward Netanyahu changed, as reflected in a scathing report he issued about the Communications Ministry and the major telecommunications firm Bezeq, this at a time when Prime Minister Netanyahu was also communications minister.

But in January, Shapira did grant an exceptional request from Netanyahu’s lawyer Navot Tel-Zur to have the committee reconvene to consider his arguments even after they had already rejected the Netanyahu’s request for permission to fund his legal expenses. The panel denied the request and after Netanyahu appealed to the Supreme Court, they accepted a compromise offer to permit Netanyahu to provide additional responses and data.

In response for this article, the Comptroller’s Office said Shapira never sought to dismiss members of the permits committee. He and the other members of the panel conduct a constructive dialogue “in a professional setting of mutual respect” that demands avoiding any conflicts of interest among its members and any cabinet ministers or their deputies. The office also said that the panel renders its decisions independently and that the comptroller “lacks the authority to alter” these decisions.

The Comptroller’s Office added that any differences of opinion between the comptroller and the panel were about one issue, and that was whether to permit Netanyahu’s lawyer to appear before the panel in addition to providing a more detailed request.