State Comptroller's Report: Netanyahu Family Flights Funded by Foreign Governments, Public Bodies and Tycoons

Comptroller transfers material to AG that he says 'raise suspicions of criminal conduct;' Netanyahu: There was nothing illegal about the trips.

Sharon Pulwer
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Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Davos, Switzerland, in 2014.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Davos, Switzerland, in 2014.Credit: Kobi Gidon, GPO
Sharon Pulwer

Dozens to trips abroad by Benjamin Netanyahu during his tenure as finance minister – many of them including his wife and family – were sponsored by foreign governments, public bodies and businessmen, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira revealed in a report released on Tuesday.

None of the trips were reported to the state committees that vet gifts and issue permits in order to ascertain in advance whether the funding constituted improper benefits or the receipt of illegal gifts.

In addition to the material contained in his report on Netanyahu's travel, commonly dubbed "Bibi-Tours," the comptroller also transferred to the office of the attorney general material which he said "raises suspicions of criminal conduct."

The suspicions concern double billing for tickets, diversion of funding and lack of clarity regarding the use of bonus El Al tickets by the Netanyahu family for private travel.

Those materials were not included in the report issued on Tuesday, which focuses on travel by Netanyahu and his family between 2003 and 2005, when he served as finance minister.

"Given the wide authority of the finance minister and the potential interests of the different elements that funded the trips – and in light of the concern of conflict of interests – it behooved Netanyahu to act with caution and take the advice of the committee that provides permits," the comptroller wrote in the report.

In all, 10 bodies or individuals, including foreign governments, the Israel Bonds organization, public bodies, private businessmen and individuals, funded travel and overseas expenses for Netanyahu, his wife and his children.

In response to the release of the report, the Prime Minister's Bureau said that "there was nothing illegal about the trips." The report, it added, "gives the impression of a special law for Netanyahu."

The leading funder was Israel Bonds, which sells government bonds around the world. While the organization functions according to the local law in each specific country, the Treasury accountant general decides fundraising policy and the effort is entirely funded by the Israeli government.    

Among other trips, the organization funded – at a cost of over $2,000 – Netanyahu's stay in a New York hotel during an October 2004 trip that was defined as private.

In his testimony to the comptroller, Netanyahu said that even during his private trips he undertook public activity for the organization.

Nevertheless, the reports states that "there is something wrong when Mr. Netanyahu receives unauthorized funding from the Bonds for an overseas stay that was defined as private, even if activities for the organization were include in the trip."

On some trips, Sara Netanyahu's expenses were financed by the Bonds or other entities, while Netanyahu was funded by another organization or the government.

The Bonds funded six of the 15 trips by Netanyahu and his family covered by the report. Haaretz has learned that inconsistencies regarding the reporting of funding for travel and expenses were found in all six cases.  

Foreign organizations were also involved in funding Netanyahu's travel. For example, an American research institute paid $23,700 in June 2004 for a trip to the United States by Netanyahu and his wife.

Another flight taken that same year by Sara Netanyahu, from Italy to Holland, was funded by a Dutch economic research organization to the tune of $700. Netanyahu himself flew on the Israeli government's tab.

"When the wife of the minister accompanies him and her expenses are paid by and external entity that is not the government, there is a concern of improper benefits all the more so when the financing is provided by an entity unconnected to the trip and which is not financing the minister's trip," the report states.

The report also provides details of trips funded by businessmen, foreign governments and even one paid for by an Israeli treasury official, who explained that he had paid because Netanyahu doesn't have a credit card and that he had been repaid in full.

The comptroller concluded his report with general recommendations which did not refer specifically to Netanyahu.

"When the government considers it beneficial for a minister to participate in an international event that would contribute to the status of the state, it is inappropriate for the travel to be funded by a foreign element that is not the government," the comptroller wrote.

He also recommended that "so long as [the regulations] aren't changed, ministers need to fulfill the basic requirement of having every trip funded by an external entity assessed by an authorized legal body – a requirement that needs to be overseen by the cabinet secretary."

"After years of explosive headlines and extraordinarily wide publicity, it turns out that the mountain has given birth to a mouse," Netanyahu's bureau responded.

"There was no conflict of interest in Netanyahu's trips, no double billing and nothing illegal. The attorney general has already checked the material transferred to him by the comptroller in 2013 and ruled that there was no reason to open an investigation. We are sure that the same will be true of the latest material."

The statement continued that the comptroller had found that Netanyahu acted exactly like other ministers at a time when regulations concerning ministerial travel had not yet been established. The regulations were drawn up in 2008, while the period covered by the comptroller was until 2005, it said.

"The attempt to retroactively impose on Netanyahu – and only on Netanyahu – rules that were only formulated later, is unworthy. It gives the impression of one law for Netanyahu and another for all the rest."

Regarding Sara Netanyahu's travel, the bureau said that she had "accompanied her husband on his trips, as is accepted  for the wives of former prime ministers and sometimes even the wives of ministers. The external bodies that invited Netanyahu were public bodies such as the Bonds, the pro-Israel lobby in Britain, educational bodies etc."

"These trips were important for Israel. Mr. Netanyahu raised tens of millions of shekels for the good of the country, was interviewed dozens of times in the international media and appeared at many public functions for the sake of Israeli PR.

"Netanyahu and his wife have been combed with a steel comb for years and nothing has been found – because there is nothing."

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