AG tells comptroller to block NIS 10m. ‘gift’ for Netanyahu’s legal defense

PM’s associates lash Avichai Mandelblit over legal opinion; opposition leader Lapid says premier’s ‘wild incitement’ against top legal official will ‘end in blood’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told the Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office on Monday that he opposes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to receive some NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) in outside funding for his legal expenses in a series of graft cases, saying the donation was tantamount to a gift.

“The attorney general’s position, under the circumstances, taking into account the exceptional amount in question being requested by Prime Minister Netanyahu, is that the transfer should not be allowed,” Mandelblit wrote to the committee in a legal opinion.

Netanyahu has asked the oversight committee to allow a NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) donation from Spencer Partrich, a Michigan-based real estate magnate, to fund his legal defense.

Because Partrich also happens to be a witness in one of the cases, the committee has asked the country’s attorney general for his opinion on the matter.

Spencer Partrich (Courtesy)

“This is even more relevant given the nature of [Netanyahu’s] relationship with Mr. Partrich as outlined by the Permits Committee. Therefore, it cannot be stated that receiving this amount by the prime minister from Mr. Partrich is not a gift given to him as a public servant,” wrote Mandelblit, who earlier this year filed the corruption charges against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, responding to the decision via “close associates,” attacked Mandelblit, repeating previous accusations that his attorney general is part of a “scandalous” deep-state conspiracy to oust him.

“Once again it is revealed that there is one law for Netanyahu and another for everyone else. This is what a political investigation looks like, ending with a political indictment,” the close associates said.

Last month, Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes opened in a Jerusalem court. The accusations include accepting some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires, Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

Netanyahu is also accused of offering to push legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a witch hunt and called the bribery allegations baseless, saying accepting gifts from friends isn’t a problem.

Netanyahu’s most senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz came to Mandelblit’s defense, saying in a statement that he gives his “full backing to the attorney general’s decision along with the entire law enforcement system in Israel.”

“They will continue to perform their job without fear, with professionalism and determination. We established this government in light of the coronavirus crisis and on that we will focus,” he added.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenorn from Gantz’s party addressed the criticism more directly, saying “Mandelblit is not persecuting anyone. He is simply doing his job. An attack on the gatekeepers harms our democracy, and harming our democracy will violate the rights of every citizen in the State of Israel.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid chimed in, warning that Netanyahu’s “wild incitement” against the top legal official would “end in blood.”

“Bibi [Netanyahu] cannot say afterwards ‘I didn’t know.’ He is leading the incitement. Anyone who stays quiet gives him legitimacy — they are also responsible,” he said, in a veiled jab at former partner Benny Gantz, the defense minister and alternate prime minister.

Arnon Milchan (center) with Shimon Peres (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu, March 28, 2005. (Flash90/File)

For his multi-million dollar legal defense fees, Netanyahu has turned to both his wealthy American cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, and Partrich.

The approval process for Netanyahu’s request to receive the funding revealed that he had already received a $300,000 donation from Milikowsky as well as suits and cigars from Partrich, which he did not receive permission for and was ordered to repay, according to the committee. The committee also asked repeatedly for Netanyahu to declare his assets, which he did not do, according to official documents released by the committee earlier this month.

Last year, it declined his request for the NIS 10 million from Partrich, saying it was inappropriate given the charges against him, the documents show. The committee said its decision was final.

But when a new committee was formed under Netanyahu’s hand-picked state comptroller, it took up the request again, citing “a significant change in circumstances” that arose following Netanyahu’s indictment in January, according to the committee documents. It has since been awaiting the attorney general’s opinion.

Netanyahu has already been allowed to accept a $570,000 loan from Partrich, the documents show.

Nathan Milikowsky in 2013, in San Francisco (Drew Altizer Photography)

Netanyahu is believed to be a multimillionaire, thanks to best-selling books, real estate holdings and lucrative speaking fees while in the private sector. The country’s attorney general is looking into a murky company share deal with Milikowsky that reportedly netted Netanyahu an exorbitant return on investment.

Netanyahu has for decades socialized with the ultra-wealthy and his supporters say he has given up opportunities to amass great wealth to serve the country instead. But he and his wife have gained a reputation for enjoying the good life, repeatedly landing in hot water for misusing state funds.

The indictment against Netanyahu highlights his ties. A number of well-known billionaires appear on the list of 333 potential witnesses, including Milchan and Packer, as well as US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a longtime Netanyahu supporter, and Oracle Corp. co-founder and chairman Larry Ellison.

Witness number 283 is Partrich. According to the permits committee decision from last year, his relationship with Netanyahu stretches back to 1999, just as Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister was ending.

“Even if afterwards a personal friendship developed, at their core the ties between the two were formed as a relationship between a mogul and a senior politician,” the committee wrote.

AP contributed to this report.

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