Netanyahu Raised $300,000 in Legal Defense Fees Without Permission

After the prime minister's request to receive funding from tycoons was rejected, new request shows he secured funds from cousin Nathan Milikowsky

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside his wife, Sara.
Marc Israel Sellem/Pool

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife received $300,000 from businessman Nathan Milikowsky to fund their legal defense in pending criminal investigations without getting permission to accept the sum from the permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office, Haaretz has learned.

The committee is responsible for evaluating any action by a cabinet minister that could pose a conflict of interest and to rule on whether the action is permissible. Recently the permits committee rejected a request from Netanyahu to the comptroller to receive funding for his legal defense from two American businessmen with whom he has a close relationship — Milikowsky, who is the prime minister’s cousin, and Spencer Partrich. The two provided testimony to investigators in Case 1000, the police probe involving suspicions that the prime minister illegally received lavish gifts from tycoons. 

In 2017, Partrich was questioned by police about gifts he had given to the prime minister in recent years. He confirmed that he had bought the premier suits worth tens of thousands of shekels, but said Milikowsky had repaid him later. Milikowsky himself was summoned to provide his account in the case after Netanyahu claimed under questioning that he had bought cigars with cash that had been given to him by a relative. A statement was issued on Netanyahu’s behalf at the time saying that “the prime minister’s cousin has been assisting him for decades, and this is permissible, well-known and legal.”

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There are two other criminal investigations pending against the prime minister. One involves conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, allegedly about government regulatory concessions to the newspaper in return for favorable coverage of the prime minister. The other relates to Netanyahu’s relationship with the then-controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications and alleged favorable coverage by Bezeq’s Walla news website in exchange for government concessions.

Last year, Netanyahu’s lawyer approached Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit seeking to obtain approval to receive financial assistance for his legal defense. The permits committee rejected Netanyahu’s request at the time, saying: “It is improper for wealthy people to finance legal expenses stemming from a criminal investigation that includes suspicions of criminal acts connected to those wealthy people” and “such funding could undermine the public’s trust in the integrity of government representatives.”

In its decision, the committee also said Netanyahu’s lawyers had not provided answers to “basic” questions, such as the total amount he was seeking from the donors, how much each of them was willing to contribute, which cases the funding was being requested for and how much the lawyers had already charged in each case. 

As reported by Guy Peleg of the Israel Television News Company, this week a lawyer for the prime minister, Navot Tel Zur, submitted a new request to State Comptroller Joseph Shapira for permission to accept $2 million for the premier’s legal defense from the two businessmen.

Haaretz has learned that Tel Zur submitted a detailed, 25-page letter in which he stated that Milikowsky had already transferred $300,000 to pay for legal fees incurred by the prime minister and his wife to a number of lawyers in legal proceedings and investigations against them. The funds were transferred without the prime minister having obtained the permits committee’s approval.

Now the permits committee must convene to discuss Netanyahu’s new request. If this request is also refused, the committee will have to decide what to do about the hundreds of thousands of dollars already paid without permission.

Several public figures prosecuted in the past, including Arye Dery and Tzachi Hanegbi, raised funds for their legal defense from nonprofit associations and foundations. Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert also received assistance from wealthy friends to pay his lawyers. Most prominent among them was businessman Rafi Unger, who said he had contributed 3 million shekels (around $789,000 at the time) for this purpose after Olmert resigned the premiership.

The prime minister’s lawyers said in response that “answers have been provided to all the questions."