Benjamin Netanyahu’s Billionaires Club

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Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on a flight to London, May 3, 2011.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on a flight to London, May 3, 2011.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, Government Press Office
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

A former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Haaretz earlier this month that Netanyahu has connections with certain individuals who are in “a very high league,” while there many others who are waiting for him to be so good as to meet them. Apparently it all depends on their financial situation.

For example, in the “very high league” category, according to this source, are Americans casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, industrialist Ira Rennert and Spencer Partridge, who is said to have provided Netanyahu with an “aerial taxi” – information that came to light in the “Bibi Tours” affair involving suspected multiple billings of his and his family’s travel expenses.

In the not-too-distant past, this former adviser noted, Netanyahu would speak of one of the wealthiest men in Britain, Gerald Ronson, with admiration, “But from the moment Ronson had a business crisis, Bibi wrote him off.”

We can assume that for many years Netanyahu “wrote off” the French billionaire and suspected fraudster Arnaud Mimran, who 15 years ago treated the Israeli leader to vacations in the French Alps and funded the premier’s public activities, according to Netanyahu.

Mimran, by the way, is not the only one of Netanyahu’s contributors who got mixed up in criminal affairs. The most prominent of these is the American businessman Charles Kushner, also mentioned in the Bibi Tours affair, as reported by Channel 10, and sentenced to two years in jail over tax fraud, illegal contributions and suborning a witness.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disembarks with his wife Sara from a plane upon his arrival at Berlin, February 15, 2016.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, Government Press Office

Mimran and Kushner are two of more than 100 businessmen, some billionaires and some multi-millionaires, with whom Netanyahu has been in touch with during his career. They come from different fields such as the media, like real estate investor and part owner of The New York Daily News Mort Zuckerman, while others identify with Christian evangelicals in the United States, and of course, there are gambling czars like Adelson and Steven Wynn.

In 2010, Yedioth Ahronoth published a report on “The secret list of Netanyahu’s millionaires,” according to which the premier’s aides printed a list for him of wealthy individuals, and classified them from 1 to 4. Work on the list actually started in 2007 as Netanyahu was preparing to renew his relationship with donors ahead of a possible return to power. He then added names of his own.

Not all the people on the list were close to Netanyahu or his benefactors, but one thing that can be gleaned from it is how he perceived them. Ronson, for example, was a number 3.

Tony Gelbart.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

There are many other interesting names on the list. Among the ones Netanyahu added in his own handwriting was Russian-born American businessman and philanthropist Leonard Blavatnik, today a controlling shareholder of Channel 10, known even before as a friend of Netanyahu. He was given a number 2. Adelson, Rennert and Ron Lauder were classified number 1. In his own hand, Netanyahu added premier figures from the Raviv Drucker’s Channel 10 story on the Bibi Tours affair – Partridge, the British millionaire Joshua Rowe, and Belgian billionaire Yehuda Weingarten, who is also the brother-in-law of Public Service Commissioner Moshe Dayan, whom Netanyahu appointed.

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, then a real estate tycoon, is also on the list, classified a number 4 – that is, not someone to expect too much from.

Sheldon Adelson, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Tess Scheflan

Connections while U.N. ambassador

According to Eyal Arad, who was close to Netanyahu and worked with him in the 1980s and 1990s, Netanyahu wants the good life, upgrades to first class, fine hotels and restaurants, but does not want to pay for them out of his own pocket.

This was known about Netanyahu when he started his political career. In a profile of him in 1991 in the newspaper Hadashot, people who knew him said that alongside his prodigious fundraising abilities was a tendency to let others pay his bills at coffee shops, restaurants and hotels.

This subject came up publicly recently when a state comptroller’s report revealed that Yechiel Leiter, then Netanyahu’s chief of staff, paid $3,000 for Netanyahu’s expenses because the latter did not have a credit card. Netanyahu’s attorneys said that the money was paid back. Haaretz asked Netanyahu why he did not have a credit card, but no answer was given.

In the 1970s, Netanyahu was in touch with donors to establish a think tank for the study of terrorism, named after his brother Yoni, who was killed in the Entebbe raid. But the role that vaulted him ahead politically as well as in terms of his connections with donors was as United Nations ambassador in the 1980s. His eloquence led wealthy Americans to mark him as a rising Israeli political star and seek him out.

Arnaud Mimran at the Paris courthouse, on May 25, 2016.Credit: Bertrand Guay, AFP

When he came back to Israel to the Likud election campaign of 1988, he saw to it that many of the contributions reached Likud, according to Arad. “During that time he had far fewer restrictions. Lots of businesspeople wanted to get close to politicians, simply because they liked them. For example, there was a businessman who simply gave Netanyahu use of a car and driver... it was allowed, and it was registered as a contribution.”

In November 1991, Hadashot journalist Hanna Kim revealed Netanyahu’s connections with American benefactors, among them Ron Lauder, Sam Domb, Morad Zamir (an Israeli businessman living in New York who has been close to Netanyahu for years) and the businessman Gabi Taman, brother of the billionaire Leon Taman. A few months later, in May 1992, Taman told Hadashot. “Bibi is without a doubt one of my best race horses, and I’m betting on him.”

In 1996, Netanyahu drafted the assistance of Australian billionaire and Chabad activist Joseph Gutnick, who bankrolled Netanyahu’s election campaign “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” which is believed to have tilted the scales in his favor over Shimon Peres.

“He has time to meet with anybody with enough money”

Netanyahu usually made the acquaintance of the various billionaires at social gatherings of Jewish communities or specific meetings set up by Netanyahu’s people in those communities. An example of the latter is the prime minister’s meeting with the French-Jewish member of parliament Meyer Habib, who introduced Netanyahu to Mimran.

Ira Rennert, billionaire, and wife Ingeborg Rennert, attend a gala for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Fund at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, U.S., Oct. 15, 2013.Credit: Amanda Gordon, Bloomberg

Netanyahu met Lauder through a mutual acquaintance over lunch.

“Let’s say he gives a lecture organized by Israel Bonds in a synagogue. There was always someone who knew to tell him – pay attention to that guy, he’s a multimillionaire. Then Netanyahu would know to be nice to him,” according to a person familiar with the way Netanyahu worked with donors.

Of course, meeting the donor is not enough. The relationship has to be maintained, and this was done by trips abroad. For example, in October 2014, after the address to the UN General Assembly in which he warned of the danger of Iran, Netanyahu met with his billionaire friends at two posh restaurants, one with Adelson and the other with Zuckerman, Partridge, Zamir and others.

“He would think about these meetings ahead of time –‘I have to get to Philadelphia, there’s a specific person I have to meet,’” as a former Netanyahu adviser describes it.

Ron LauderCredit: Ofer Vaknin

“Going to London? You take a list of all the friends he had in the past in the city and see who you can set up a meeting with. Same thing in New York. You ask if there’s time to meet them all? The answer is if someone has enough money, then yes,” the former adviser added.

Donor maintenance was done from Israel as well, when these individuals came for a visit or if they needed a recommendation from a senior Israeli figure. In February 2003, for example, when Netanyahu was foreign minister about to become finance minister, he wrote a warm letter for his good friend, the Jewish American businessman Tony Gelbart. In 2004, when Netanyahu was finance minister, he asked then-President Moshe Katsav to write a birthday greeting to billionaire John Gandel, as Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz.

By coincidence or not, some of Netanyahu’s Israeli associates subsequently found themselves employed by those individuals. For example, the head of budgets under Finance Minister Netanyahu, Uri Yogev, immediately after leaving his position became Gandel’s representative in Israel. Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s media adviser in the 1990s and later consul general in Miami, is now the representative in Israel of Canadian billionaire Gerry Schwartz, who is also close to Netanyahu.

But Netanyahu doesn’t always succeed in making these connections. “On the one hand, it’s hard for him to maintain these relationships because of his personality. He is not a warm man like Ehud Olmert. On the other hand, when he comes into power then suddenly all those donors are courting him, because they want to show that they are connected to the Israeli government,” says an individual who worked with Netanyahu in the past.

French-Jewish member of parliament Meyer Habib.Credit: Courtesy

One thing over the years that can be seen is that Netanyahu’s donors share his political views and the relationships he fostered helped not only him but the right wing in Israel. For example, in the 1990s it was Lauder who backed the conservative Shalem Institute in Jerusalem. Roger Hertog is one of 19 of Netanyahu’s benefactors who also contributed to the Republican Party or to its 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

From the beginning of Netanyahu’s career he was criticized for his many foreign donors. He justified it by saying he preferred foreign donors to Israeli ones to avoid conflicts of interests over possible government and big money connections. But many of the foreign donors have interests in Israel. For example, Zamir has property on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street where he wanted to build. And Jay Schottenstein, who owns American Eagle Outfitters, which has branches in Israel, contributed 160,000 shekels (about $41,400) to Likud in its last primary.

What is Netanyahu’s foundation for?

One of the things that became clear this week, albeit partially, is the legal framework by which Netanyahu’s contributions were arranged in the past. His attorney David Shimron claimed that the $40,000 transferred by Mimran to his client went to his foundation when he was a private citizen (between 1999 and 2002) and funded his public activities for Israel, such as lectures.

On Friday, Gidi Weitz reported in Haaretz that this money was used for polling for Netanyahu ahead of his return to politics in 2002. It was not the first time that such a foundation operated. In the 1990s, Shimron was in charge of the Von Weisl foundation, which was defined as a foundation to benefit Netanyahu’s internal Likud activities. For example from March 1991 to March 1992, the foundation spent 160,000 shekels on “polls and research,” and 129,999 shekels on “events and public diplomacy.” Questions to Netanyahu’s bureau and to Shimron as to these foundations received no reply.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disembarks with his wife Sara from a plane upon his arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Russia, June 6, 2016. Credit: Sergei Karpukhin, Reuters

Shimron, who has been with Netanyahu for a long time, also assists in the area of donations. The Shimron, Molho, Persky & Co law firm has also represented some of the billionaires associated with Netanyahu – notably Mimran and Zamir.

Shimron responded in a statement that all fundraising for Netanyahu “was in keeping with the law and strict observance of the rules in force during each of the period of the activities.”

The statement added that “the attempt to show fundraising for Netanyahu as something unique, different from that common to leaders in Israel and the world and paint it in negative colors, is part of the media attempt to create one law for Netanyahu and another for the rest.”

Shimron quoted Netanyahu with regard to the Mimran affair that “you will find nothing because there is nothing.”

He said he would not relate to matters pertaining to his firm’s clients and that all the firm’s work was legally done and strictly avoided conflicts of interests.

Netanyahu’s bureau declined to comment for this report.

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