Will the Witnesses Fund Netanyahu's Defense?

It's hard to escape the impression that by considering to allow the prime minister to receive funding for legal defense from two wealthy individuals, the attorney general is not acting in the public interest

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit attending a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
Dan Balilty / AP

That Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is inclined to permit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept funds from two wealthy individuals, Spencer Partridge and the prime minister’s cousin Nathan Milikowsky, to fund his legal defense (Haaretz, June 8), does serious damage to the standards of integrity for public servants. If Mendelblit approves the practice, it would amount to a moral collapse, destruction of the remaining norms of public conduct, and inflict real damage to the legal proceedings being pursued against Netanyahu.

The prime minister, like other public servants, is only permitted to draw a salary and other benefits from the public treasury. Netanyahu, who charges almost all of his family’s expenses at the official residence and at his private residence to the public purse, knows this well. The rules of ethics that apply to cabinet members bar them from receiving benefits from any other source. At the same time, receiving private funds could also constitute a violation of the law on receiving gifts as well as laws on fraud and breach of trust. That would be the case even if the funds came from a third party who is not connected to the investigation.

But since both Partridge and Milikowsky gave testimony in Case 1000, the investigation of cigars, champagne and other benefits given to Netanyahu and his wife over the years, to allow the prime minister to now accept funds would be a retroactive approval of sorts of the practices under investigation.

In addition, granting such permission to the prime minister would require that consent be granted in the future to any public servant – senior or junior – who would ask to be able to accept private funds on the grounds that it serves essential needs that their salaries don’t manage to finance. Such a loophole in the rules applying to public servants would spell the destruction of official norms designed to separate government from financial interests.

It’s hard to escape the impression that the attorney general is not acting in the public interest in this matter. That the prime minister’s private lawyer Jacob Weinroth approached Mendelblit to obtain his consent shows that the subject of Netanyahu’s funding of his attorney’s fees is a private matter rather one of state, in which the attorney general would issue a formal opinion. If ordinary citizens are not authorized to approach law enforcement authorities on questions of how to comply with the law, the principle of equality also requires that elected officials and public servants not be able to do so when it doesn’t involve the fulfillment of their jobs.

Mendelblit needs to come to his senses and remember that his role is to serve the public interest by means of an efficient, rapid and fair pursuit of investigative proceedings and charges against the prime minister, refraining from what would appear to be an attempt to protect Netanyahu and place him above the law.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.