Israeli Watchdog Orders Re-examination of Netanyahu Legal Defense Funding

The permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office has been ordered to hear the arguments of the prime minister's new lawyer, only weeks after it turned down a similar request to receive funds from tycoons

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 9, 2019.
Emil Salman

In a rare move, the Israeli government’s chief watchdog ordered his agency to rehear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to raise millions of dollars from businessmen to fund his legal defense.

Last month the permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office turned down the prime minister’s request to allow him to accept funding offers from tycoons Nathan Milikowsky (a cousin of Netanyahu) and Spencer Partrich. Both men have given statements to police in connection with an investigation into allegations that the prime minister improperly accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen, known as Case 1000.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira instructed the committee to hear the arguments of Netanyahu’s new lawyer, Navot Tel Zur, rather than only examining his written submissions. In ordering the reappraisal, Shapira cited a legal clause that can be exercised in the event of a “significant change in circumstances” after a decision has been reached. The exact reason for Shapira’s decision is not known, but the key may lie in Tel Zur’s written appeal against the committee’s refusal.

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In rejecting Netanyahu’s request, the three-member committee headed by a retired judge said: “It is improper for wealthy people to finance legal expenses stemming from a criminal investigation that includes suspicions of criminal acts connected to wealthy people.”

The committee said further that "such funding could undermine the public’s trust in the integrity of government representatives.”

A few weeks after the panel issued its decision, Tel Zur submitted a detailed letter to Shapira and the committee, in an effort to have it overturned. Haaretz has learned that committee members saw no reason to reconvene, as its decisions are considered final.

In response to Shapira’s letter, the committee agreed to meet with the comptroller “to hear him out,” as they put it. In a letter to him, the panel’s members stressed that their willingness to hear Tel Zur’s arguments cannot be seen as an expression of willingness to change their decision.

In a statement, the State Comptroller’s Office said its original decision was final, citing a clause in regulations to prevent conflicts interest in matters of government ministers.

On Monday, Shapira sent a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit reporting that Netanyahu had received $300,000 for his legal defense without getting permission from the comptroller or informing him. The comptroller asked Mendelblit to examine the implications of the money transfer.

Last week Haaretz revealed that Netanyahu had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from two businessmen to pay the lawyers representing him and his wife Sara in the investigations and legal proceedings against them. The money was transferred to Netanyahu between March 2017 and March 2018, but it was only in April that his lawyers requested permission to accept the funds.