Contrary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim, a foundation that received donations from French businessman and suspected fraudster Arnaud Mimran financed political polls for Netanyahu, and not merely efforts to explain Israel’s policies overseas.
The polls were conducted at the start of the previous decade, when Netanyahu was preparing to return to political life after a brief time-out following his loss in the 1999 prime ministerial election.
In Moscow, Netanyahu responded to the reports at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and called the affair "systematic political persecution."
"The mountain has given birth to a mouse. The balloon has been deflated," he said, referring to the Hebrew equivalent of making a mountain out of a molehill. Netanyahu said that despite reports that he received a million euro campaign donation in 2009, the money he received from Mimran was a legal donation for a public diplomacy foundation in 2001, when he was a private citizen.
The foundation has recently drawn media attention because of new developments in Mimran’s fraud case. He is currently standing trial in France on charges of defrauding the state of hundreds of millions of dollars, and during his court testimony, he said he had given Netanyahu a million euros in the past.
Netanyahu originally denied having received any money from Mimran, a close friend. But he later said the French businessman had contributed money to a public-benefit corporation which Netanyahu set up to finance his public diplomacy work on Israel’s behalf during his time-out from politics.
Netanyahu’s attorney, David Shimron, said that “as the person who ran Mr. Netanyahu’s foundation for public activity when he was a private citizen, I can state in the clearest possible manner that the exact sum given by Mr. Arnaud Mimran was $40,000.” Mimran, in an earlier interview with Channel 10 television, said he had transferred 170,000 euros to Netanyahu’s personal bank account.
According to Shimron, the $40,000 donation was made by interbank wire transfer directly to the foundation’s bank account on August 24, 2001. He denied that Mimran had given any additional money to the foundation, adding that “no money at all was transferred to Netanyahu’s personal account, nor was any amount given to Mr. Netanyahu’s election campaign.”
But careful scrutiny of Netanyahu’s activity in the early 2000s reveals a different picture than that painted by the prime minister’s aides, who claim that Netanyahu had abandoned all political activity and used the foundation’s money only for public diplomacy.
In reality, after Ehud Barak’s government fell in late 2000, Netanyahu announced that he intended to return to politics. He later backtracked on a plan to run for chairman of the Likud party prior to the February 2001 election, and over the subsequent months, his foundation raised money, including from Mimran. But Netanyahu’s preparations for returning to politics resumed in 2002, and toward the end of that year, he joined Ariel Sharon’s government as foreign minister. That same year, he ran unsuccessfully against Sharon for the Likud’s leadership.
In June 2002, 10 months after Mimran’s donation, while Netanyahu was still playing the role of a concerned citizen planning to return to politics, this reporter revealed the foundation’s existence in the weekly Kol Ha’ir after learning that the foundation had financed polls for Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s office claimed at the time that “the foundation deals with all of Mr. Netanyahu’s public activity.” It also said the foundation was supervised by an accountant and a lawyer.
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