Israel’s High Court of Justice on Monday heard a petition demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu return the $300,000 that he received without permission from his cousin, businessman Nathan Milikowsky, to finance his legal defense.
The permits committee operating in the State Comptroller’s Office, which reviews actions by ministers that might pose a conflict of interest, had in January 2019 ordered Netanyahu to return the money, as well as suits that he had received from businessman Spencer Partrich, but as revealed by Gidi Weitz in Haaretz, neither gifts have been returned.
The petition, filed by the Movement for Quality Government, called on the court to decide who has the authority to enforce the order to return the money and suits. “The enforcement of the decision was assigned to respondents 3 and 4 [the attorney general and the state comptroller], who to this day are ‘squabbling’ over who is responsible for enforcing the return of the monies that were improperly given,” the petitioner wrote.
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Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit supported the position that Netanyahu must return the money and the suits, writing that “decisions made by the permits committee must be followed.” In his response to the petition, he also contended that “the relevant authorities in the comptroller’s office” were meant to enforce the decision.
On Tuesday, the permits committee will hear Netanyahu’s fourth request to have his legal defense funded by Milikowsky and Partrich, after the panel rejected three previous attempts.
The first, in November 2018, was to retroactively approve what he had already taken, and it was denied for two reasons. The panel thought it unseemly for him to take money from wealthy individuals to cover legal expenses related to a criminal investigation into his taking gifts from wealthy individuals. Netanyahu also refused to make a capital declaration and provide information on the nature of his relationship with Partrich.
In January 2019, the prime minister submitted a second request which led to the decision at issue in this petition. Netanyahu appealed, but the ruling was upheld in a final hearing in June 2019. A month later, newly-appointed State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman chastised the members of the permits committee for insisting that Netanyahu return the money to Milikowsky, arguing they had exceeded their authority. Three members of the committee resigned in protest, and in their place he appointed eight new committee members, who included former directors general of ministries, some of whom had known affiliations with rightwing parties.
Four months ago, Netanyahu submitted a fourth request to the committee, citing “a significant change in circumstances,” namely, his being charged with crimes in three different cases. The Movement for Quality Government petitioned against this request, arguing that the permits committee had no authority to discuss it because it had already reached a final decision in the matter and the change in circumstances was irrelevant. Last month, the High Court dismissed the petition, with Justice Menahem Mazuz writing that, “There is no place for judicial review of the process at this stage, before the committee has made a decision.”
The permits committee is chaired by retired judges Nechama Zimering Mounitz and Sara Frisch (who was one of the founders of the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party). Its members include Shmuel Slavin, a former Likud Knesset candidate, and Esther Luzzato, who during the last election campaign called to vote for Netanyahu, and has in the past criticized protesters demonstrating against Mendelblit, claiming they wanted to bring down Netanyahu by circumventing the ballot box.