Analysis

Netanyahu's Ties With Tycoons Face Scrutiny, Just as He's Set to Lead New Fundraising Effort

Beyond absurd: As investigation begins into prime minister's possible receipt of illicit gifts from billionaires, the state has given him the green light to forge closer ties with them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacting to speech about Israel by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Dec. 27, 2016.
Emil Salman

On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at the center of two looming police investigations, one of which centers around charges that he received improper gifts from tycoons. Meanwhile, the government officially authorized him on Sunday to collect hefty donations from donors abroad to fund the celebrations of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, in 2018.

With its decision, the government seems to have lost all shame.

Yes, it’s true. With one hand, the country’s law enforcement system is investigating Netanyahu, and with the other, it is granting him permission to forge even closer ties with tycoons. It’s no wonder the police haven’t been able to schedule a time for questioning him: He’s probably busy setting up meetings with donors.

Of course, Netanyahu himself won’t pocket the donations, but who else but the prime minister will be at the center of the 2018 festivities, as one of the stars of the event whose funding he helped to raise.

The decision passed by the government includes clauses that are intended to prevent conflicts of interest. For example, before contacting a potential donor, Netanyahu is supposed to obtain approval from a donations committee. The committee is comprised of the director general of the Culture and Sport Ministry, the ministry’s accountant and legal adviser, and the head of the hasbara (public diplomacy) department of the Prime Minister’s Office. The panel is authorized to keep the donors’ names from being made public, so even public transparency is not assured here.

How will the committee know whether to approve the people with whom Netanyahu is to meet? Will it receive information from the police? Will it know, say, if a certain donor is also being questioned in connection with the new Netanyahu investigations, so that an encounter between the two could potentially obstruct those efforts?

Of all the people in the government, why should the person who is the busiest, who must deal with the weightiest matters, who has the most influence over decisions – each one of which may involve costs of millions of shekels – be the one tasked with raising funds?

The government decision also contains stipulations that will ensure that a potential donor is not seeking a benefit in return from the prime minister – and that the prime minister will not offer any favors to the donor.

The problem here is the ongoing entanglement of big money-government ties (see: the submarine affair).

Netanyahu is so powerful that the only way to avoid conflicts of interest with donors would for him to be locked in a sealed room and cut off from all human contact. Even then, one of his loyal ministers could always make a decision that benefited a donor.

And who will oversee the donation committee? None other than Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, that champion of efforts to trample the limitations imposed by our laws. Former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had to stop her again and again from such attempts, prompting her comment – caught on tape – that he was “a piece of garbage.” Yes, we can rest assured that she will guard the guardians on the committee.

And yet, there is also a positive side to this farce. The ministers realize that there is only one person who can extract donations of tens of millions from the world’s wealthiest, and that is Benjamin Netanyahu. At least the police investigators probably don’t have to prove that the prime minister has the ability to extract huge sums from tycoons. All that’s left for them to find out is who gave money, how and why.