It's Time for Netanyahu to Pay for Years of Illicit Freebies

It emerges from the state comptroller's report that only in certain instances, as rare as an honest politician or rain in Tel Aviv in late May, is Netanyahu’s wallet opened and money removed from it.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Credit: Kobi Gideon / Government Press Office
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

All the embarrassing stories linked to the names of Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu share a common denominator: parasitism. In the dictionary, parasites are defined as creatures that live in or on other creatures, the hosts, and are nurtured by them. The male and female parasites – Benjamin and Sara – cannot behave otherwise. That’s their nature. If they are detached from the host and required to survive on their own, without being trained to do so during long years of poverty and begging, they will find it difficult to survive.

They have a large host, the State of Israel, medium-sized hosts – organizations and millionaires – and small hosts, like Avner (the mover) Amedi, or Avi (the electrician) Fahima. Sometimes the smaller hosts nurture free of charge, but later suddenly claim that there are no free lunches. Then the medium-sized hosts or the large one are summoned to pay the bill.

That, in effect, is the story at the heart of the report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, a former district judge, concerning Netanyahu’s travels in the world of freebies. A marvelous universe, in which you go on vacation and travel the world, gratis. Netanyahu can compete with the authors of guidebooks for down-and-out travelers, explaining how to cross six continents without spending more than a dollar a day, with even that dollar being taken from a driver, a bureau chief, a cleaning lady or a chief caretaker.

He has no credit card, and not only because of paranoia, to ensure that policemen or private investigators will fail in their efforts to locate traffic in his account. That enables him to conclude meetings in restaurants by indicating “The bill this time – and every time – is on you; I have no credit card, not to mention cash.”

Only in certain instances, as rare as an honest politician or rain in Tel Aviv in late May, is Netanyahu’s wallet opened and money removed from it, almost half of the 30,000 shekels (about $7,800) wasted in less than a week spent on the French Riviera. The prime minister’s voters can also go to the Riviera, the Bat Yam Riviera, on the Dan Bus Company’s No. 10 bus. On the way they should study Netanyahu’s economic philosophy concerning the need for budgetary restraint.

Netanyahu’s most impressive reason for the total identification between those who invite him and himself – i.e., zero conflict of interest – is the subject of his lectures in favor of the principles of the free market (hashuk hahofshi). As usual with him, you have to read the phrase in English. Hofshi, as in "free."

Who will handle the parasites? Shapira is entering, or in effect returning for another season – a year after the report on the prime minister’s residences – to a crowded and competitive industry. Awaiting him there, among others, is National Labor Court President Judge Yigal Plitman, who apparently has a unique sense of humor: When, as expected, he rejected the brazen demand on Monday by Sara Netanyahu – with her husband’s support – to disqualify Judge Dita Pruginin from ruling on the lawsuit of former Prime Minister’s Residence employee Guy Eliyahu against the Netanyahus, Plitman stuck her with 4,000 shekels in expenses.

Why not 3,000 or 5,000? Only Plitman knows for sure, but the number 4,000 is flashing above Sara’s head. That’s the sum she paid to the state treasury for the royal bottles she returned, pocketing the deposit money, from the period of 2009 to 2013. If she now finds it difficult to find sources of funding for her expenses, she can recycle bottles again.

Eliyahu’s lawsuit, in addition and parallel to the lawsuit of caretaker Meni Naftali, which has ended – except for the appeals by the parties involved – in a defeat for both Sara and the government, is one of three simultaneous legal fronts in which the Netanyahus are being put on the defensive. The Israel Police's National Fraud Investigations Unit is completing a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct at the residences, with Sara as the main suspect.

And in the same unit, which is replacing its commander at present, and accompanied by the same Jerusalem district Prosecutor’s Office, the criminally tainted materials regarding the funding of the Netanyahus’ world travels are being examined and/or investigated. These are the materials that Shapira is legally obligated to send to the past and present attorney generals, Yehuda Weinstein and Avichai Mendelblit.

Ostensibly, this is still an “examination” rather than an investigation. In effect, the difference is mainly linguistic. In a pre-investigative examination there is no face-to-face questioning of suspects under caution, and no orders to seize documents, but the police have other, less official methods to get cooperation, especially in government ministries.

For all the investigative trees it’s easy to miss the forest in which Hansel and Gretel wandered. On the one hand, there is the Jerusalem Prosecutor’s Office that's dealing with civil matters; and on the other hand, the criminal part of the same office. On the one hand, there is the state comptroller, who earlier on made no special effort to examine the Netanyahu files – but since the bottles affair and other incidents related to the residences, in February 2015, was added to the couple’s blacklist, and has come to his senses; and on the other hand, there's Weinstein and his successor Mendelblit, both of whom also served Netanyahu faithfully but not sufficiently, according to the premier. Indeed, any outcome less than closure of the couple’s cases causes him bitter disappointment.

Weinstein, Netanyahu's consistent defender, who stopped proceedings against him and served as his phone buddy for midnight chats, has been transferred to the group of the ostracized since he retired a few months ago without getting rid of the cases.

Mendelblit is also on the way to the blacklist – if he chooses the honest and statesmanlike path. In the Shapira report he appears in two roles, first as the cabinet minister who muttered last summer about “budgetary implications and implications for the relations between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” with a promise to discuss that with the attorney general, and then later as the attorney general with whom he was supposed to consult. Will the minister-turned-attorney general remember who advised whom to do what?

In the Amedi case Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein spoke of the “ugliness” of the Netanyahus’ behavior. At that time, in 2000, Netanyahu preferred a dishonorable mention to prosecution. Now Netanyahu has been too quick to rejoice that Shapira’s report on him doesn’t mention criminal behavior. It’s not the ticket issued by the traffic cop that should worry a driver caught in an alleged offense, but rather the ensuing trial and revocation of his license – and perhaps even a more severe punishment.

These are the boundaries between the state comptroller and the attorney general: If it’s in the report, it isn’t criminal, because if there’s a suspicion of crime in a case that justifies its transfer to the attorney general – who will decide whether to instruct the police to investigate – the critical review must be stopped, for fear that the criminal investigation will be distorted. Those being criticized will embellish their stories, witnesses will coordinate their testimony, documentation will disappear; and in any case what the comptroller gathers can’t be used by the police and will require whitewashing by means of renewed gathering of testimony.

Suspicions of criminality are the "export surplus" of the state comptroller’s report. In the case of Netanyahu, Shapira is like a coal miner who found a diamond and sent it to a diamond polisher, who knows what to do with it. Netanyahu breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the coal, presumably black but cheap, while the serious accounting awaits him somewhere else, in the investigation and prosecution system.

Netanyahu was preceded by Olmert in identifying the acrobatics of financing his expenses by the so-called billiard method: one person orders, a second pays, and there is a surplus for covering yet another event that devolves on a third person. Is it merely not nice – or prohibited as an undeclared and untaxed gift (the tax aspect is absent for some reason from the comptroller’s report), like the monthly grant that Ezer Weizman received from French millionaire Eduard Seroussi, which led to his embarrassing resignation from the presidency? Or does it also involve the recipient in a conflict of interest on two levels – when the source of funds is a body connected to the finance minister’s official job (i.e., Israel Bonds) and when it’s a businessman. The risk in the second case is self evident for every elected official and far more so for a finance minister.

Israel Bonds were an important pipeline for foreign currency in Israel of the 1950s and '60s. Their raison d’etre in the 21st century is dubious. They are important mainly to politicians in the ruling party. One of them agrees to resign from an official position in order to be appointed to the presidency of Israel Bonds in far-off New York, thereby enabling the promotion of another politician, who will be grateful (or not) to the enabler. The enabler receives a round-trip ticket for speeches to buyers of the bonds and the opportunity to bring along his wife, or another woman, as he chooses. Up to this point it’s routine, perhaps infuriating but it's certainly been accepted, long before the Likud and Netanyahu.

What is not routine is the use of the bonds for a monetary transfer that contradicts their purpose: to finance a debt of Netanyahu’s that was created elsewhere. A secret move – Bibi as James Bonds. Possibly meriting an investigation by the federal government and the State of New York, since it’s against U.S. law. The finance minister, as trustee with respect to the official affairs that concern the organization's operations, is liable to find himself in a breach of faith in such a case.

Netanyahu will of course say that “everyone does it” – all the ministers – until the state comptroller started to look into it, and also that it happened a long time ago and he didn’t know that it may be illegal, because he didn’t consult legal experts. According to the Silvan Shalom precedent and the sexual harassment complaint against him, which was investigated on Weinstein’s orders although the statute of limitations clearly applied, that statute is an insufficient reason for declaring an investigation of the funding of the flights and the hotels superfluous – and there’s no way of knowing what else will crop up during the investigation.

Moreover, according to the Mizrahi-Karadi precedent, a senior official can be hurt and removed from his position even if the complaints against him refer to the way he functioned during a previous job. That’s what the government did, to its disgrace, to the head of the Police Criminal Investigations Department Moshe Mizrahi, due to false complaints about his behavior as head of International Investigations unit; that’s also how Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi was forced to resign, although the Zeiler Committee had investigated his activities as chief of the Southern District Police. Prime Minister Netanyahu can and must pay now for his behavior when he was finance minister.

In 2004 and 2005 Netanyahu, the man of principle, opposed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for evacuating the Gaza Strip. That is, he didn’t exactly oppose it; on the contrary, he supported it, repeatedly, until he changed his mind. The evacuation began in mid-August 2005, only a week after Netanyahu resigned from his position and from the government. Why did he dally so much? For ideological reasons, of course, but perhaps there was another consideration as well. In the course of two-and-a-half weeks, from June 23 to July 10, the flights and hotels of the emperor of revulsion, the queen of ugliness and their children cost tens of thousands of dollars. The cash cow was milked up to the last moment.

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