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Netanyahu Adviser Was Paid for by U.S. Nonprofit - but AG Halted Probe

Nonprofit, headed at the time by Ari Harow, also paid for Sara Netanyahu's trips abroad. AG Mendelblit shut down the investigation even though senior police officers believed there was a suspicion of fraud.

Netanyahu, Harow, Mendleblit, and Sara Netanyahu.
Ronen Zvulun, AP, Daniel Bar On, Marc Israel Sellem, Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit recently blocked the police from conducting an inquiry against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although several investigators thought there were suspicions of alleged fraud by the prime minister. The police inquiry relating to Netanyahu is currently focusing on a different case.

The alleged incident occurred before Netanyahu was reelected prime minister in 2009, and involved funding Netanyahu received from an American nonprofit called American Friends of Likud, whose donors get a tax deduction and whose primary aim is education and facilitating meetings between American officials and Likud ministers, MKs and other opinion makers.

Ari Harow, who later served as chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, headed the organization during the relevant period. During these years the nonprofit allegedly financed trips that Sara Netanyahu took abroad, and while Netanyahu was head of the opposition it allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars to an adviser of his under the guise of providing services to the organization.

Although the police had seized relevant documents and recordings, Mendelblit instructed them not to pursue the case because he did not believe that it would result in criminal action against Netanyahu. Mendelblit’s decision was controversial within both the police and the Justice Ministry. Some supported it, while others believed that the investigation should be continued because of its inherent potential. Mendelblit’s decision made it impossible for the police to take evidence from several of Netanyahu’s close associates, including the family’s attorney David Shimron.

The money route

Avichai Mendelblit (right) consults with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting, September 2015.
Ohad Zwigenberg (Pool)

For some months now, under a heavy veil of secrecy, police have been conducting an inquiry into issues related to Netanyahu and his  associates. This inquiry is Mendelblit's first significant test in dealing with the centers of power. Mendelblit has refused to say what that inquiry is dealing with, but Haaretz has obtained some information that sheds light on it.

Toward the end of his term, the previous attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, decided to launch an inquiry into Netanyahu after State Comptroller Joseph Shapira gave him information that raised suspicions of violations by the prime minister in the case that has been dubbed “Bibi-tours.” That case, which has been bandied about by law-enforcement agencies for several years, involves trips Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu took abroad that were financed by tycoons, nonprofit associations, and other bodies.

In May and December 2015 the State Comptroller’s Office gave Weinstein various materials relating to this case, which, Shapira said, pointed toward double-funding, the diversion of funds, and questions about the Netanyahus’ alleged use of El Al frequent-flyer bonus points that belonged to the state, for private travel.

Although Weinstein made a decision in principle to look into the suspicions he never outlined a course of inquiry and the volatile issue passed to his successor, who decided after a while that there was no point in any further inquiry since similar material had been examined by the police in the past and it did not seem to pass the criminality threshold. That decision was not readily accepted by all involved, either.

Subsequently, the police received information from two intelligence sources about a number of allegedly criminal issues involving Netanyahu. The two sources directed police to various people who had been connected to Netanyahu over the years so that they could give detectives more clues, evidence, and incriminating testimony. It was at this point that the serious inquiry began, involving the top echelons of the Justice Ministry and the police investigations division over a period of several months.

One of the main cases the sources pointed to was an operation that funneled money from tycoons to fund the personal needs of the Netanyahu family in roundabout, camouflaged ways. According to the intelligence information, the key person in this operation was allegedly Harow. Harow was questioned as a possible suspect in this case several weeks ago and was then put under house arrest. 

At this point, the picture portrayed by the sources regarding this operation was not confirmed by the police inquiry. However, in the course of the inquiry National Fraud Squad detectives obtained fairly solid information about the link between the American Friends of Likud and Netanyahu, and the latter’s involvement in the fictitious employment of an adviser by the nonprofit when the adviser was actually working for Netanyahu. The adviser was paid tens of thousands of dollars. In this case there were documents backing the allegations and even comments about the way Harow had allegedly “greased” Netanyahu when he was opposition leader. Harow was appointed the head of Netanyahu’s bureau not long after these alleged events – in early 2009 when Netanyahu was elected prime minister. 

Police detectives and senior officers believed the inquiry should be continued, so that more witnesses could be questioned before deciding the fate of the investigation. But Mendelblit decided not to pursue it because he did not believe it would yield a criminal indictment. 

Police also looked into other suspicions concerning forgery during the internal elections for the Likud chairmanship. Investigators took evidence from a number of key people, including computer people who worked during the primary, and came to the conclusion that the information it received was incorrect.

Now police are focusing on a number of other cases they stumbled upon during the inquiry into the initial suspicions. One is very significant; it will soon be known whether this case, which is still in its preliminary stages, will become a full-fledged investigation or whether it, too, will be closed. 

Netanyahu rejected the allegations in a statement. "All the actions by the prime minister and his wife at said period, and at any period, were according to the law and protocol. Attempts by elements in the meda to exert undue pressure on law enforcement to act against Netanyahu won't come to anything this time either, for the simple reason that there's nothing and there has never been anything (to investigate)."

Someone familiar with Mendelblit’s work told Haaretz, “The attorney-general’s philosophy is to deal with substance and not to invest efforts in channels that will go nowhere.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly said in recent months that “There won’t be anything, because there isn’t anything.” He associates claim that all his actions have been proper.