Israel’s State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman found that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had violated the law and should be fined, but then changed his position after an appeal by Netanyahu.
A report published on February 1 addressed a political meeting Netanyahu held at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem during the Likud party primary race in 2019, despite a legal ban on using the residence for political purposes. In addition, such meetings also violate an election campaigning law.
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Haaretz has learned that a draft of the report stated that Netanyahu had violated the law. After receiving clarifications from Netanyahu’s attorney, Englman decided to suffice with a warning that such an infraction must not be repeated.
Englman’s decision was contrary to the position taken by some members of the comptroller’s team that monitors political parties, who said that a warning wasn’t enough and argued for levying sanctions against Netanyahu.
The meeting in question, which was attended by many Likud activists, was held was during the throes of Netanyah’s Likud leadership contest against rival Gideon Sa’ar. After losing, Sa’ar left Likud and is running in the March 23 election as head of the New Hope party.
The event became known to the State Comptroller's Office, and an investigation followed. The comptroller team’s report had made clear that Netanyahu’s conduct was forbidden and advocated fining him. The draft signed by Englman was handed to the prime minister for comment before the final report was released.
Michael Rabilio, an attorney for Netanyahu, rejected the accusation but said that the incident wouldn’t happen again. He said Netanyahu had thought the meeting was permissible in light of a decision made by the Central Elections Committee head at the time, which allowed press conferences to be held at the Prime Minister’s Residence as long as they were not partisan. He said the committee chair, Judge Hanan Melcer, had verbally approved of holding that meeting.
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However, Melcer denied this assertion to Haaretz. A statement on his behalf said that “during his role as chairman of the Central Elections Committee for the elections to the 21st and 22nd sessions of the Knesset, it was not his custom to grant permission or ban anything verbally, with the exception of truly urgent matters such as questions that arose on Election Day.”
Regarding the decision cited by Rabilio, Melcer wrote that “election campaigning must not be held at the official residence nor may any electioneering signs be posted.” Beside Melcer’s denials, the CEC also distanced itself from the issue, saying the committee had told the comptroller’s team that Likud had approached them about the gathering and that they did not approve of holding it. The committee said it was made clear to Likud officials that the chairman’s decision had to do with holding a press conference, not a political gathering.
Rabilio added that the prime minister also relied on a “procedure regarding the expenses of a serving prime minister,” which was composed by legal aides in the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the procedure, a party event may be held as long as the party, not the residence, pays for it. The lawyer said Likud had paid for this meeting.
Based on this argument, Englman thought he could not conclude that the residence had been used illegally. He told the team that had this procedure been brought to his attention beforehand, he would not have signed the draft of the report. But contrary to his position, members of the staff involved in monitoring political parties said the draft needed to be checked because it says that the residence had been used for illegal political purposes. They said that a law regarding election propaganda explicitly bans making such use of a public property.
In the end, the comptroller wrote: “The report issued regarding the prime minister’s expenses for the primaries was positive. At the same time, following a finding that the Prime Minister’s Residence had been used for a political meeting, the comptroller commented on the matter and made it clear that henceforth such use of the Prime Minister’s Residence for a political gathering with many participants must be avoided.”
He also wrote: “The law forbids this with regard to electioneering for primaries on public property. At the same time, the law permits the use of properities that the state has put at the disposal of a minister, deputy minister or lawmaker…” He said this law, in accordance with the principle of equality, appeared to extend to properties at the prime minister’s disposal, including the Prime Minister’s Residence.” He noted, “the procedure that permits offsetting a serving prime minister’s expenses allows for the use of the residence for party purposes, subject to the funding being provided.”
After accepting Netanyahu’s responses to the draft and justifying the use of the Prime Minister’s Residence, Englman added that such use of the residence should nevertheless not be repeated.
“The comptroller stresses that use of the Prime Minister’s Residence for party functions can be permissible to a proportionate and reasonable extent, if it is clear to all that a distinction must be made between holding meetings with a small number of participants as compared to hundreds. In light of this, the use of the Prime Minister’s Residence for election functions with many participants ought to be avoided,” he stated.
The State Comptroller's Office said in response that the claims presented in this article are "wrong and misleading," asserting that "The state comptroller's audits are professional, through and objective."
"After the Prime Minister's Office reported to the State Comptroller's Office the cost of holing a primary election conference at the Prime Minister's Residence, the matter was reviewed as part of campaign spending," the statement read.
"The State Comptroller's Office reviewed the issue together with the attorney general, while ensuring the law has not been breached and that the procedure allowing using the official residence for partisan needs was upheld.
"The audit was released alongside the primary election report and recommended to the legal adviser at the Prime Minister's Office to clarify the procedure of using the official residence. In addition, the comptroller stressed the need to avoid large political conferences at the Prime Minister's Residence in the future," the statement added.