Activist attorney Shachar Ben Meir is on a mission: to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pay his taxes.
The 61-year-old commercial law specialist says he has been focusing his efforts for the past two decades on righting societal wrongs by means of class action suits and precedent-setting legal rulings.
He rejects the characterization of his motives as “lofty.” He just has the time, money and legal knowledge to help him fix things he finds unfair.
“I never thought about why I do this,” he said in a phone interview. “I guess it is because it makes me feel good with myself. When I see things that are not OK or are faulty, or things that make me angry, then I don’t just stay quiet or complain. I do something about it.”
Ben Meir is now threatening to go to the High Court to overturn a controversial June decision by the Finance Committee that relieved Netanyahu of the need to pay taxes for fringe benefits he got during the years 2009-2017 from his employer — the State of Israel — and sent the bill to the taxpayer instead.
These benefits include renovations to Netanyahu’s private home in Caesarea, including fixing the pool and gardening work, and use of the bulletproof prime ministerial car, on which he would normally, like any other citizen, need to pay taxes.
In 2018, it was legislated that the prime minister’s use of his official vehicle would not be taxed, and that the state would bear the costs of his private residence in addition to the official residence in Jerusalem, and the prime minister would not be taxed on these benefits. The recent Finance Committee decision now absolves Netanyahu from paying these taxes for the period before 2018.
By law, “you need to pay taxes on any benefit you get from your employer” — such as a laptop or a company car — if you get personal use out of it as well, Ben Meir said in the interview.
Netanyahu ally MK Miki Zohar told the Finance Committee ahead of its decision last month that paying the taxes would have left the prime minister — estimated last year by the Israel edition of Forbes magazine to be worth NIS 50 million (approximately $14 million) — “financially crippled.”
Netanyahu’s current monthly salary is NIS 56,345, of which he takes home an estimated NIS 28,000, according to financial website Calcalist. All of his and his family’s expenses at his residence in Jerusalem are paid for, including utilities, food and municipal taxes, as well as cooks, security personnel and drivers. The state also picks up the costs of Netanyahu’s private home in Caesarea, which in 2015 amounted to NIS 298,000, according to Calcalist.
The Likud party, headed by Netanyahu, insisted he was not seeking anything that had not been granted to previous holders of the office, saying in a statement, “There was an outrageous and personal attempt to charge Netanyahu with tax that was not required of any other prime minister.”
Ben Meir argues, in letters he sent to the legal adviser of the Finance Committee and the State Attorney’s Office after the Finance Committee’s decision, that the committee had no authority to approve such a step, and that even once it was approved, it does not exempt Netanyahu from paying taxes on benefits he received in those years that are not connected to his role as prime minister.
“I am now waiting for their answers,” Ben Meir said in the interview. “And if they won’t satisfy me, I will file a suit with the High Court.”
He believes his claims will stand up in court. “I think so — otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”
Ben Meir is not new to the case. He was the one who in 2016 got the state to concede, thanks to a High Court petition, that Netanyahu should pay taxes on fringe benefits he receives from the state for his Caesarea home, which led to the tax bill, of reportedly NIS 600,000 ($174,100), now in question.
Netanyahu did not pay, and the Finance Committee has now ruled that he need not.
In his letter to the legal adviser of the Finance Committee, Ben Meir wrote that the Finance Committee had made a “invalid” decision and it must be reversed.
If the prime minister didn’t want to pay the taxes required by law on benefits he received that are not connected to his role, he could have used the legal channels available to all citizens, wrote Ben Meir — he should have turned to the tax authorities. Instead, he went to the Finance Committee for a “personal and retroactive exemption.”
That is “a significant and substantial injury to the rule of law,” Ben Meir wrote.
150 lira a month
Furthermore, the committee members were not given the full facts regarding the tax obligations of other prime ministers in a similar situation, he wrote.
The prime minister’s claim that he was the first to ever be handed such a tax bill, Ben Meir added, stems from the fact that he is the only one who has ever received state money for expenses incurred at his private home that are not pertinent to his role — a fact that should have been checked before the Finance Committee made its decision.
Previous prime ministers never had to pay any such tax, simply because they never got any such benefit, he said.
Ben Meir brings to the attention of the Finance Committee’s legal adviser that in 1956, when the government of David Ben-Gurion gave ministers residences in Jerusalem, it decided that if the ministers derived personal benefit from using them, this benefit would be subject to taxation.
“This is exactly the tax duty that has been imposed on the prime minister” now, Ben Meir wrote in his letter.
In the national archives, Ben Meir dug up a 1969 memo concerning former prime minister Golda Meir’s private home in Ramat Aviv, which mentions that she was asked to pay 150 lira a month for her personal expenses, what Ben Meir estimates was about a third of the average Israeli monthly salary at the time.
In addition, on August 10 that year, the secretary of the finance department at the Prime Minister’s Office required Meir to pay an additional 150 lira because she had hosted personal guests at her private home the previous month.
Golda Meir’s personal residence at the time was a modest home in Ramat Aviv, in the north of Tel Aviv — not a villa in Caesarea, like Netanyahu’s home, Ben Meir noted in the interview.
“What was obvious in 1969, that the prime minister pays for personal expenses,” is not obvious in 2020, when Netanyahu believes the state should pay his taxes on money it gives him for his personal expenses, Ben Meir wrote in his letter.
Ben Meir has also called on the State Attorney’s office to require Netanyahu to pay his tax bill even in light of the Finance Committee’s decision to exempt him. The decision itself says that the state will cover Netanyahu’s taxes for all income or benefits given to him with regard to performing his job as prime minister.
What are the expenses that are paid with respect to his role? asked Ben Meir in a letter to the state attorney.
The answer was conceded by the state back in 2016, Ben Meir said in his letter, which said explicitly that all expenses connected to personal benefit must be taxed.
This makes it clear, Ben Meir said, that any past or future payments made toward Netanyahu’s private home that are not connected to the fulfilling of his role must be taxed.
A public figure is a public trustee, Ben Meir said by phone. “He should be working for the good of the public and not his own benefit.”
Ben Meir’s legal work in recent years has included getting Netanyahu’s political consultant Yitzhak Molcho to resign, and helping uncover details of the shady relationship between Netanyahu and communications tycoon Shaul Elovitz through his petitions. Both Elovitch and Netanyahu are now on trial as part of Case 4000, aka the Bezeq case, in which Netanyahu is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
In an interview with Globes financial newspaper in 2018, in Hebrew, Ben Meir said he has nothing personal against Netanyahu. Because Netanyahu has headed the government for so many years, he is the natural focus of any suit against government abuses, Ben Meir said. But the issues at hand have always been about principles, he emphasized.
Netanyahu is not the only focus of Ben Meir’s efforts to make Israel a fairer place. He has filed a High Court case to stop the Shin Bet security service tracking (Hebrew link) of citizens in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus; he has filed complaints to the antitrust authority regarding the merger of two TV license holders; he has petitioned the Central Elections Committee to disallow disallow false statements (Hebrew link) to be used in elections campaigns; and most recently, via a suit he filed to the district court, he got dairy manufacturer Tnuva to compensate consumers (Hebrew link) to the tune of millions of shekels for using its monopolistic status in the market to hike up the prices of cottage cheese.
Not everyone can be active as he is, Ben Meir admits.
“I can allow myself to do it both financially and because I have the legal knowledge. I can do it — so I do.”