Where’s the Money From?

From top left clockwise: Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, and Economy Minister Eli Cohen.
Marc Israel Sellem, Ofer Vaknin, Emil Salman.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen holds shares in a company that makes loans to customers in the United States, according to the conflict of interest agreement he signed with the state that was published this week. The shares are held in a blind trust, as required for approval by the permits committee at the State Comptroller’s Office.

Which company? Who are its other shareholders? That information isn’t available to the public. At the Registrar of Companies, it is registered to the minister, under the name DSN Holdings. That’s easily obtainable, but who are its customers and suppliers? That’s a private matter.

Zeev Elkin, the environmental protection minister and Jerusalem affairs and heritage minister, received a loan of 600,000 shekels ($170,000) from his oligarch friend Vladimir Dubov, formerly an owners of the giant Russian energy conglomerate Yukos. Dubov is considered a Kremlin opponent, whereas Elkin, as is well known, frequently visits the Kremlin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Elkin did report this loan, but the information wasn’t made public until TheMarker uncovered it and reported it in 2015. This week it was learned that, following the reporting, the Justice Ministry made a special conflict of interest arrangement for Elkin’s entire relationship with Dubov.

Until 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had holdings in the Texas-based firm Seadrift, which is controlled by his cousin Nathan Milikowsky. The public was unaware of this until Netanyahu asked the permits committee for permission to receive $1 million from Milikowsky for his legal defense. The suspiciously low price at which Netanyahu bought the shares was only revealed after that information became public. For the past three months, the attorney general has been considering opening an inquiry or criminal investigation into this affair. As TheMarker reported in April, Netanyahu also held shares in another corporation controlled by Milikowsky. Which one? Netanyahu refuses to say. The information is in a safe and is deemed confidential.

In 2017, Miki Zohar was rebuked by the Knesset Ethics Committee for holding three hearings of the Knesset Committee for Distributive Justice and Social Equality, which he chaired, about the Carmei Gat real estate project. It later transpired that his wife owned five apartments there. Ministers and deputy ministers must submit asset declarations to the Knesset speaker and the state comptroller. Knesset members are required to submit such declarations only to the Knesset speaker. All these declarations are kept in a safe and never made public.

Elected officials also purportedly deserve privacy, but on occasion, the right to privacy becomes the right to conceal conflicts of interest from the public. Experience shows that the infringement on their privacy is dwarfed by the benefits that transparency provides to the public. The public interest in preventing conflicts of interest outweighs elected officials’ right to privacy. The time has come for ministers’ and Knesset members’ asset declarations and conflict of interest agreements to be made public and subject to public scrutiny.

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