Fewer Experts, More Likud Backers: Netanyahu's Watchdog Reshuffles Government Oversight Panel

After entire committee resigns in protest of Israeli state comptroller's 'interference' over the prime minister's legal funds, watchdog nominates eight new members

Matanyahu Englman sworn in as Israel's state comptroller at the Knesset, July 1, 2019.
Emil Salman

Israel's State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman named on Monday new members for his office's permits committee, which looks into conflicts of interest in government positions, with some nominations raising cocerns over the committee's impartiality.

The committee, which refused on three occasions to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take money from cronies to cover legal defense in his corruption cases will be expanded from three lawyers to eight people, most of whom have ties with Likud and other political parties and no legal expertise.

Englman, who said he was "revolutioning" the committee, argued his intent was to replace the jurists with “senior figures in the economy and experts on social policy,” although the committee’s function is to rule on requests by ministers that could entail conflict of interest.

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Backed by Netanyahu, Englman was elected for the position of state comptroller by the Knesset in a June vote, seen as a test of the prime minister's power.

Netanyahu speaks at a political event in the West Bank, July 10, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Two ex-judges, Nehama Munitz and Sara Frish, were named the new joint chairwomen of the committee. Munitz resigned from the court four years ago but Culture Minister Miri Regev of Netanyahu's Likud party recently appointed her for a committee setting criteria for the distribution of tickets to state ceremonies.

Frish is a former advocate but since retiring in 1994, she has led a private law firm that represents numerous audited clients. In 2006 she was a founding member of right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi (now part of United Right) and in 2015 her firm was named, without an auction process, to provide legal services to Benjamin Netanyahu's office. In recent years a number of politicians have hired her to head various public committees: In 2017, Naftali Bennett hired her to lead a committee to choose five candidates for the Israel Prize. That same year Avigdor Lieberman chose her for the committee to select the next commander of Army Radio.

The other members are Shmuel Slavin, a former director-general at the Finance Ministry; Eden Bar Tal, former director-general of the Communications Ministry; Mordechai Cohen, former director-general at Tel Aviv University; Esther Luzzatto, patent lawyer and chairwoman of the Yachdav Foundation; Israel Tik of the Council for Higher education, and Rabbi Shalom Sharon, head of the Ethiopian Jewry research division at the Ono Academic College.

Slavin had been a candidate for Likud in 2006, the year he also managed Likud’s election campaign. He was also shortlisted to be Netanyahu’s chief of staff.

Luzzatto recently called on Facebook for people to vote Likud and for Netanyahu.

A law enforcement source commented that the committee is supposed to focus on matters of public interest and integrity, and to be separate from politics.

The Democratic Union responded that move by Englman reflects an attempt by Netanyahu to evade indictment: "In order to achieve this goal, he is willing to destroy all democratic institution … Netanyahu's fear of being prosecuted for fraud, bribery and breach of trust will bring the destruction of the image of Israel as a democratic state."

The entire previous committee had resigned last week in protest of what they termed Englman's "interference" in their work on issues involving Netanyahu. Specifically, Englman disagreed with the committee that Netanyahu must repay $300,000 he received from his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, to fund his legal defense. Englman said ordering the refund exceeded the panel’s authority.

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The previous head of the permits committee resigned in March, saying he felt the panel was being subjected to political pressure aimed at making it change its decisions on Netanyahu’s requests. 

The permits committee by the power of ethics rules the government adopted in 1977. It decides when ministers and deputy ministers may accept private funding, including foreign travel at someone else’s expense, or how to handle privately held assets or shares. Their posts are funded by the state comptroller.

The rules do not govern how the committee members are chosen or how many there need to be. It is mere tradition that the committee was staffed until now by lawyers and chaired by a former District Court judge.

Englman stated that this is the first step towards reform in the direction of constructive, quality auditing, and said the committee now integrates experts from a wider range of fields and opinions and communities.

Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.