Analysis

Netanyahu Suffers Legal Blow, and It Could Be Devastating

For Netanyahu, move to bar him from receiving aid for lawyers is a strategic attack

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 24, 2019.
Emil Salman

The State Comptroller's decision not to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive millions of dollars from wealthy associates to pay his legal fees is, for him, tantamount to a strategic attack.

The prime minister’s lawyers will be petitioning the High Court of Justice in the coming days to reverse the decision. If the court rejects the petition, Netanyahu will have two choices: Dig into his own pocket or ask the committee that decides on legal assistance to public officials to pay for the hearing before the attorney general and then, if need be, pay further legal fees.

The battery of lawyers currently representing Netanyahu, headed by Navot Tel-Zur, has been working for free for several months now, submitting bills that are not being paid. If the State Comptroller's permits committee decision stands, it is very likely that Tel-Zur and his people will not continue to represent Netanyahu. They know that in a few days, after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announces whether he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, a hard drive will land on their desk containing tens of thousands of documents from the investigation.

>> Read more: No to Netanyahu: Israel's attorney general made the right decision | Analysis ■ Bibi bombshells explained: Your guide to all the Netanyahu cases ■ A panicked Netanyahu is bracing for the inevitable | Analysis

A dive into the shadowy sagas of this investigation, the Nir Hefetz tapes and the exchange of text messages of telecom giant Shaul Elovich, in preparation for the hearing will require round-the-clock work and hiring additional lawyers, an expensive endeavour. In light of the committee’s decision, Netanyahu can’t expect his lawyers, or those that replace them, to work for free. Such a scenario could itself be considered a prohibited gift.

Netanyahu corruption scandals

In making its decision, the permits committee touched on the most sensitive question of all: Why does a person with means and assets like Netanyahu's need the charity of tycoons? The committee members revealed that the declarations of capital that Netanyahu submitted to the state comptroller as required by law show that the prime minister is a wealthy man. The question of the gap between Netanyahu’s money and his need for financial support from wealthy associates also comes into play in the Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of receiving lavish gifts from businessmen, first and foremost the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Two of the wealthy associates from which Netanyahu asked for millions of dollars worth of assistance to pay his legal bills testified in Case 1000. One of them is Netanyahu’s cousin, Nathan Milikowsky. The other is Spencer Partrich, who met Netanyahu 19 years ago, after his painful loss to Ehud Barak in the race for the premiership before he returned to Ariel Sharon’s government.

The permits committee noted in its decision that at its request, Tel-Zur provided details of the gifts Netanyahu received from Milikowsky and Partrich over the past five years. According to Tel-Zur, the prime minister received $300,000 from Milikowsky for his legal expenses and a few suits from Partrich.

The panel wrote that it believed Netanyahu should rightly give back the suits. “However, if he has already used them and returning them is not possible... he should return their monetary equivalent to the givers or pay that amount to a worthy cause to be determined,” the panel said.

This explosive statement can open the door to a future demand by the committee to return the monetary equivalent of all the lavish gifts Netanyahu received from wealthy associates during his term as prime minister – from champagne to cigars to jewelry worth tens of thousands of shekels and the Columbia jackets that Netanyahu and his wife received from Milchan, right down to the cash his generous cousin Milikowsky gave him from time to time.

Two of Netanyahu's lawyers Tal Shapira and Navot Tel-Zur in Jerusalem, January 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The committee informed Netanyahu that he must repay his cousin back for the $300,000 given to him for attorneys for him and his wife, used without the panel's approval. The wording of the decision clearly shows that the committee was insulted by the fact that the prime minister and his lawyers concealed this important detail for a long time. The committee also said it would need to see “documentation” that the money had been returned.

In the beginning of the decade, then-State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg issued a sharply worded report saying he found that millions had come illegally from abroad to Ariel Sharon’s campaign treasury when he was running for the Likud chairmanship. To head off a police investigation, Sharon announced that he would return the money to the donors. But later it was suspected that Sharon did not return the money after all, and that Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff used an associate named Cyril Kern to cover up the millions flowing to the account of Sharon’s ranch. Netanyahu doesn’t need another complication.