Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told Israel’s High Court on Sunday that funds received by Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife, to pay for her legal defense in a criminal case should be examined to determine whether they constituted an indirect benefit to the prime minister.
The permits committee at the State Comptroller’s Office had recently ruled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed only to reimburse a tenth of the $300,000 that his family received from his cousin, businessman Nathan Milikowsky. The remainding $270,000, the committee found, had gone to pay for his wife’s legal fees in defending allegations of her misuse of public funds for expenditures at the Netanyahu family's residences.
The committee considered Sara Netanyahu a private citizen, and therefore not subject to the Israeli law that bars a cabinet minister from accepting the “payment of benefits” without permission. But Mendelblit argued that “a benefit to the minister’s wife or another person in his household can be considered a benefit to the minister” himself.
Mendelblit appeared before the High Court at a hearing on a petition by the Movement for Quality Government and the TLM anti-corruption movement seeking an order requiring the prime minister to reimburse the entire $300,000 that he received from his cousin.
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According to documentation on the permit committee's decision, it made its determination based on an affidavit submitted by attorney Yehiel Weinroth in August. It details the income that the law firm of his late father, Jacob Weinroth, had received for representing the prime minister.
According to the affidavit, Milikowsky transferred $300,000 to Weinroth’s firm in three payments, on March 16, 2017, November 12, 2017 and March 29, 2018. The document states that 110,000 shekels ($30,000) had been paid, including VAT for legal fees involving Benjamin Netanyahu, while “the rest of the payments were for representing Mrs. Netanyahu, both in preparation for questioning and during the hearing,” referring to the case of suspected misuse of public funds.
The document from members of the committee – the chairwoman, retired Judge Nechama Zimmerling Munitz, retired Judge Shulamit Dotan and Yisrael Tik – states: “Mrs. Netanyahu is not a member of the cabinet and therefore Rule 6 of the authorization rules does not apply to her.” The cabinet had set these rules to prevent conflicts of interests among ministers and deputy ministers over benefits they receive.
But the Movement for Quality Government argued otherwise. “The giving of ‘gifts’ valued at almost a million shekels to the prime minister’s wife is a gift to the prime minister himself. We regret that the committee chose not to explore the matter deeply and in fact permitted the practice of gifts to a minister via a gift to his wife,” the group said in response to Mendelblit's position.
“We welcome the attorney general’s position and hope that the court will instruct the committee to come back to the table and make a reasoned decision based on a full legal and factual basis.”
Sources close to Netanyahu said Mendelblit's statement was further evidence that the attorney general was working to overthrow the prime minister. The sources alleged that Mendelblit had contradicted himself many times regarding the Netanyahus, changing his opinions in order to ensure that Netanyahu be convicted, and that he had prevented the prime minister from funding his defense.
They described Mendelblit as having "lost all restraint" and seeking to "topple Prime Minister Netanyahu at any price."