Opinion

The Invoice That Is the Mother of All Corruption

The invoice from 2004 and addressed to Ron Lauder's investment firm's president is for the payment of expenses incurred by Ron Dermer, now Israel’s ambassador to the United States, and 'S.N.' (Sara Netanyahu).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara alongside Ron Dermer.
REUTERS

After the first investigative reports into the so-called “Bibi-Tours” affair were published in 2011, the attorney general received a copy of an invoice dating from 2004. The invoice was addressed to Jacob Schuster (written Shuster in the invoice), at the time the president of Ron Lauder’s RSL Investments Corp. The invoice is for the payment of $4,795 for expenses incurred by Ron Dermer, now Israel’s ambassador to the United States, and “S.N.” (Sara Netanyahu).

At the time, Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel’s finance minister and Lauder did business in Israel. The invoice was issued by Ayala Travel and Tours in Jerusalem. The question is whether someone doing business in Israel is allowed to pay for the finance minister’s wife.

It is hard to believe that any lawyer would decide that such an invoice is not worth investigating, at the very least. It is the “mother of all corruption,” to use the new jargon from the present attorney general and “family lawyer” Avichai Mendelblit – who succeeded the first “family lawyer” and attorney general Yehuda Weinstein.

The invoice addressed to Jacob Schuster.
No credit

Had the invoice been investigated, it is possible that it would have led to an indictment. Maybe not. Maybe it was pure friendship; maybe there were circumstances we don’t know about. (They did not come out in the state comptroller’s examination.) But there was no investigation.

The police examination of Bibi-Tours, which involved alleged improper funding of flights abroad by Netanyahu and his family when he was serving as finance minister between 2003 and 2005, began a few months after the reports were published. The allegations included “suspicion of double billing and the diversion of funds” and “lack of clarity concerning accounting with El Al regarding the Netanyahu family’s use of bonus points belonging to the state that were allegedly used for private travel.”

The examination lasted about three years. In the end, Weinstein announced that he had decided not to turn the examination into a full criminal investigation. The state comptroller examined the issue for five years, but all he could come up with was a report that basically confirmed many of the findings. The comptroller also announced that he would not release some of the findings, because they seemed to be appropriate for a criminal investigation. Instead, he said he was giving the information on the matter to the attorney general to continue the examination.

Mendelblit announced on Monday he would not open a criminal investigation into the funding of travel by Netanyahu and his family. Moreover, because of Weinstein’s foot-dragging, it is likely that the statute of limitations has expired for most of the alleged offenses – if they were committed at all.

The invoice is not just a remnant of the Bibi-Tours affair. It was discovered after this reporter published the original reports on the affair, and has never been published before (though I did report on the invoice’s existence.)

Netanyahu has already begun to celebrate, so I will just remind you of the facts, to whatever extent it still matters to anyone.

The original Bibi-Tours investigative report was published in March 2011. Netanyahu filed a libel suit against Channel 10 and this reporter, but later withdrew the suit. He has never claimed that some of his trips and those of his family were not paid for by wealthy businessmen.

Netanyahu never received an apology, compensation or a clarification from Channel 10 or from me. Nothing.

The police examination of the matter began months after the report was published. The examination lasted for about three years before Weinstein decided not to open a criminal investigation, which he justified with various absurd explanations. No real investigation of the affair has ever been conducted. The rich businessmen were never questioned, and the police never questioned Netanyahu about the matter either. Then came the part of the state comptroller, first Micha Lindenstrauss and then his successor Joseph Shapira, who closed his examination in May 2016 and published his own report.

Schuster and Lauder paid for Dermer and Sara Netanyahu’s flights in 2004. Today we are already in 2017. The affair is already prehistory. So why was Mendelblit in such a hurry to announce at such a late hour that he was closing the case, which he had never announced that he had opened? Why announce the closure of a case in which it is very likely that the statute of limitations has expired for the vast majority of the events?

How is it that for nine months Mendelblit has been conducting a confidential examination of the prime minister, and when Netanyahu is finally questioned “under caution” as a criminal suspect, Mendelblit actually releases an announcement that is an almost complete acquittal of Netanyahu?

In response, Netanyahu posted an attack on his Facebook page on Tuesday: “Bibi-Tours – Nothing! Claims for forbidden campaign funding – Nothing! Claims of falsifying primary results – Nothing! Claims of receiving benefits overseas and funding flights – Nothing!”

“Many years of daily persecution against me and my family turned out yesterday to be nothing. Will someone in the press apologize for the thousands of headlines, articles and hours of broadcasts of the ‘best in investigative journalism,’ which were shown to be complete nonsense? Certainly not Drucker,” wrote Netanyahu.

I always thought Mendelblit was an honest person, who simply had fallen into an impossible situation because of his previous job as cabinet secretary. Monday night’s announcement is beginning to highlight signs of cracks in that assumption.