Friendship is cited as a defense in many bribery cases involving public officials, but it cannot explain every gift, said Liat Ben Ari Sheweky, the prosecutor who is overseeing the various bribery investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Claims of friendship are real, but when hundreds of thousands of shekels in gifts to a public official are involved, “I find it difficult to accept that this is only a gift between friends,” she said. “No one asks for or receives hundreds of thousands of shekels from friends. We need to examine the relationship in every case, when they began and what is the size of the gifts.”
Ben Ari Sheweky is the director of the taxation and economic crimes division of the Tel Aviv District of the State Prosecutor’s Office. She was speaking at an Israel Bar Association conference on money laundering in Tel Aviv on Thursday. She has been supervising the investigation of suspicions of accepting bribes against Netanyahu.
She did not mention Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is under investigation for allegedly receiving large gifts from a number of wealthy businessmen. Netanyahu’s lawyers have said the gifts were given to him in friendship and were not related to his official position.
“Bribery is not only envelopes that trade hands under a bridge,” Ben Ari Sheweky added. She noted that even an amount as small as 100 shekels (around $25) is bribery in every way, and in general, we use our judgment to narrow the law and not expand it, she said, referring to indictments filed even over small sums of money or in return for other interests.
She mentioned the case of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in this context. In one case, Olmert was convicted for accepting a hotel stay worth $4,700, which was paid for by businessman Morris Talansky. “This is not a small amount for a public servant who earns what he does. This is not a lunch or a holiday gift of 100 shekels. But if 1,500 shekels are given as a holiday gift by a party of interest then we need to think about it. It could be the public official won’t go to prison for six years but it is already just a question of the sentence,” Ben Ari Sheweky said.
Ben Ari Sheweky was in charge of the Holyland affair investigation against Olmert and others. Last month, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided to add her to the team involved in the investigation of Netanyahu. She is has specialized in white-collar crime and is considered a particularly fierce prosecutor, who has conducted many public corruption cases.
“There is no basis to claim anything was improper in the relationship between [Netanyahu] and his friends,” a representative for the prime minister said in a statement.
“First, the close friendship between the families was a clear fact that cannot be disputed, including during the period when [Netanyahu] was a private citizen. Second, we deny the amounts mentioned, and in any case these were cigars given many times over 17 years of friendship. So the claim as if one gift was given worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, or many gifts worth thousands of dollars each, is simply untrue.”
“Third, during all these years there were no [improper] interests and no quid pro quo was provided. We repeat: There was nothing, so there will be nothing too.”