Knesset Did Not Okay Netanyahu's London PR Trip

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu ostensibly broke the Knesset's ethics rules by not approaching the Ethics Committee before he left for London on his Israel PR mission in August 2006, committee members said yesterday.

The Likud leader may also have broken the law against accepting gifts, if his trip with his wife was paid for by businessman Joshua Rowe, Knesset sources said.

The Ethics Committee will discuss the matter soon after a complaint was lodged by Labor Party activists. The Ethics Committee said it never discussed the Netanyahus' trip because the lawmaker never requested such a discussion.

Netanyahu yesterday filed a slander suit against Channel 10 in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, after its report that he and his wife had spent NIS 131,000 during a six-day trip to London in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War. Netanyahu's bureau said Saturday night that he did not need to approach the committee because the Knesset speaker had asked him to make the trip.

But the law says the committee must be informed if Netanyahu's London stay was funded by outside sources - Israel Bonds and Rowe - and if Sara Netanyahu joined her husband at the expense of these parties.

In 2002, the Ethics Committee prohibited MKs' spouses from joining them on trips abroad when invited by an outside party if they did not have an official role to play.

The Ethics Committee approved Sarah Netanyahu's trip retroactively in a letter in January 2007, Netanyahu's bureau said. That letter made no reference to Benjamin Netanyahu's trip because he had not approached the committee. Ethics Committee chair MK Haim Oron (Meretz) said, "We do not approve anything retroactively."

Knesset sources said the alleged funding of the Netanyahus' laundry, hairdresser and theater tickets by a third party might be construed as a gift, prohibited by law.

"The preoccupation with the approval of the Ethics Committee, instead of dealing with his important mission during the war, is trivial," one source said.

Netanyahu told a group of Likud activists in Ashkelon yesterday that he and his wife were being slandered, even though he acted on behalf of the country and not on its expense. (See related story)

The slander suit, filed by Netanyahu's lawyer, Yaakov Weinroth, says the television report "included lies, fallacies, half-truths and distortion of statements that present Mr. Netanyahu as someone who took a pleasure junket while the State of Israel was under siege."

The suit states that Netanyahu was on an intensive PR mission to counter Arab propaganda, and that he paid NIS 12,000 in private expenses out of his own pocket. These expenses included a hairdresser, purchases at a pharmacy, a restaurant meal and a visit to the theater. According to the TV report, the cost of the Netanyahus' theater outing was around NIS 11,000.

The suit also says that in contrast to the report, Netanyahu did not make many trips to London's theaters, but went one time at the end of a day packed with interviews and appearences for Israel. The suit says Netanyahu went at his own expense, with his wife and bodyguards. It says the TV report overstated the theater outlay out of malice.

The suit also states that no "anonymous" individual funded Netanyahu's stay in 2006, but rather well-known and respected Jewish organizations in Britain.

The Knesset's records of official delegations indicate that the state paid "local expenses" during Netanyahu's trip of NIS 5,143, and NIS 13,699 for his plane ticket. This outlay contradicts a statement Netanyahu made yesterday that "the stay did not cost the Israeli taxpayer even one shekel."

The cost of the plane ticket covers a first-class seat. The Knesset does not fund first-class tickets, but at the most, business class. Knesset director general Avi Balashnikov said he had demanded that the Israel Bonds pay the difference, which they did.

"Everything stated in Raviv Drucker's story is based on documents we received," Channel 10 responded.