A few weeks ago, at a Knesset Finance Committee’s meeting, coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar claimed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents “want to cripple him economically.”
He was speaking at a committee discussion of Netanyahu’s request for a tax exemption on expenses on the use of his private home in Caesarea and of his official car. Before the request was approved Zohar said the prime minister “shouldn’t have to look for ways to make ends meet.”
Haaretz has learned that in recent years Netanyahu was far from “economically crippled” and that in the years 2017-2018 alone he earned hundreds of thousands of shekels from investments.
The prime minister’s economic situation had been discussed before, following his repeated requests to the permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office to allow him to receive millions of dollars to finance his legal defense. He wanted to receive the money from two American billionaires – his cousin Nathan Milikowsky and Spencer Partridge.
The committee members, who repeatedly rejected his requests, asked to look at his declaration of assets, which is kept in the comptroller’s safe, to see whether he was really in need of his friends’ charity.
Former state comptroller Joseph Shapira rejected the request with the general statement: “Netanyahu is a wealthy man.”
As far as is known, Netanyahu owns real estate worth tens of millions of shekels, consisting of a villa in Caesarea, a two-floor apartment on Gaza Street in Jerusalem and half of his late parents’ house on Haportzim Street in Jerusalem. The second half of the house was bought by Partridge, at Netanyahu’s request, from his brother Ido Netanyahu.
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“It’s a very good investment,” Partridge said in his testimony, when questioned about the lavish gifts Netanyahu is suspected of receiving as bribery from millionaire friends. “It’s part of Israeli history. When he’s no longer in office we’ll think what to do with it. It will be good in any event.”
Asked how much he paid for the property, Partridge said: “About $2 million.”
The investigators said the price at the time was 4.2 million shekels, or $1.3 million, “much less than what you’re saying.“
Partridge replied: “Maybe $1.5 million, maybe 2 million, I don’t know.”
The permits committee debates led to another affair now being looked into by the law authorities. The committee members discovered that in November 2010 Netanyahu made a 16 million shekel profit from selling shares of the steel company SeaDrift, which he had purchased three years earlier for $600,000. The company owner at the time was his cousin Milikowsky, who confirmed in his testimony that “for many years” he had been transferring cash to the prime minister.
“I learned charity from my parents, it’s a tradition of hundreds or thousands of years,” he said. “People of means have a duty to support...It’s something I’m ready and happy to do.”
The investigators said Netanyahu is “very affluent” but Milikowsky was unimpressed. “If he wasn’t in public office he’d be giving lectures and writing a book for $20 million, and I don’t think he’d ask me for anything. You consider him as very affluent, I see a man in public office.”
Haaretz has learned that in the years 2017-2018 Netanyahu earned hundreds of thousands of shekels from investments.
When he was reelected as prime minister in 2009 Netanyahu asked to renew the arrangement from his days as finance minister, allowing him to keep financial assets overseas, run by an Israeli trust company.
His lawyer Dan Shimron gave then Attorney General Menachem Mazuz a draft agreement between Netanyahu and Discount Bank’s trust company. “Mr. Netanyahu is interested in investing his money in the most solid way and without being in any situation that could raise suspicion or fear of conflict of interests,” Shimron wrote.
For this reason he asked to have his money managed by UBS Private Wealth Management Group. Shimron wrote that a considerable part of Netanyahu’s money was invested abroad, among other things in U.S. government bonds.
The state comptroller and the permits committee authorized the arrangement. Every year Netanyahu was asked, like every minister and deputy minister, to give the state comptroller an annual declaration of assets detailing his income from wages and other sources.
Haaretz learned that according to his declaration of 2017, Netanyahu’s income from his account abroad was 294,000 shekels, and in the first quarter of 2018 he had an income of 135,000 shekels. These gains, from investments defined as “extremely solid,” could indicate the extent of activity in Netanyahu’s foreign account.
Documents Shimron submitted in Netanyahu’s name to the comptroller’s office show that the account in UBS Bank is in dollars. In March 2014 Shapira wrote to Netanyahu that the balance of his trust account abroad was $156,497 lower, while the balance of his checking account in shekels, in Bank Discount, was higher by 677,243 shekels.
He wrote that “according to the rules a minister must report to the state comptroller withdrawing funds from a providence fund, saving fund or trustee account.”
Other documents reveal that Netanyahu has two accounts in Discount Bank, in dollars and in shekels. In a letter from 2015 Shapira noted that these accounts had grown by “$177,000 and 368,000 shekels” and asked Netanyahu to detail the reason for this.
One of the prime minister’s confidants told Haaretz: “Netanyahu’s reports to the comptroller about his investments were accurate. For many years he preferred to invest some of his financial assets abroad, to prevent a situation of conflict of interests. By the way, the investments abroad were extremely solid. The yield was not high, these are mostly state bonds. In general, these investments were not so successful.”
Netanyahu declined to give the permits committee details about his financial situation, but his lawyers hinted at the argument that he could afford to pay for his legal defense. “Conceptually, there’s no distinction between a permit to help a minister who is affluent and a minister without assets,” they wrote. “Just as a minister, like any other person, is entitled to obtain any life-saving medicine, so a minister, like any person, is entitled to obtain defense means in a legal process. The right to life and to dignity are the same, and they exist regarding the rich and the poor as one.”