High Court says Netanyahu, AG, police must explain missing foreign dignitary gifts

Order comes in response to petition demanding criminal probe regarding 30 presents, some of them valuable, that disappeared from PM’s residence after Netanyahu left office in 2021

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice has ordered law enforcement agencies to explain why they have not opened a criminal investigation into the disappearance from the Prime Minister’s Residence of valuable gifts that foreign dignitaries gave to the state during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous tenure as premier.

High Court Justice Yechiel Kasher instructed the Attorney General’s Office, the State Prosecution’s Office, the Israel Police, and Netanyahu to respond to the petition by March 26.

The decision came following a petition filed by the MQG to the High Court on Wednesday demanding it order the law agencies to open a criminal investigation into the matter.

According to details provided by the Prime Minister’s Office to the organization in June 2022 following a freedom of information request, there are some 30 gifts that are allegedly missing from the Prime Minister’s Residence which, according to the Gifts Law 1979, are the property of the state.

The list of gifts includes what is recorded as the first copy of the Hebrew Bible to include the now ubiquitous commentary of the 11th-century Jewish sage known as Rashi, given to Netanyahu by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow; an ornamental case containing a golden coin given to Netanyahu by Pope Francis during a visit to Israel; a rectangular glass casket decorated with gold leaves by the artist Stefan Schlanser given by former US president Barak Obama; and numerous other items.

In August 2021, the legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office Shlomit Barnea Farago wrote to Netanyahu requesting he return the gifts to the Prime Minister’s Residence, but it took another five months before his lawyers held a meeting with her in December that year to discuss the issue.

During the meeting, Netanyahu’s lawyers said they could not return the gifts because “some were broken and some were lost,” and subsequently sent a letter to Barnea Farago insisting Netanyahu was not responsible for locating the missing gifts.

View of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on December 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The petition filed by the MQG notes a similar episode when Netanyahu’s first tenure as prime minister ended in 1999, in which a police investigation found that the premier and his wife Sara had unlawfully removed some 700 gifts worth NIS 400,000 ($118,000) from the Prime Minister’s Residence. Some of the gifts were later found at their private residence, others in a storage unit, and some were never recovered.

Then attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein ultimately decided not to indict Netanyahu over the affair due to “evidentiary problems” and contradictory testimony of a state witness, despite recommendations by the state attorney’s office to do so.

“The Movement for Quality Government demands the attorney general explain why she has not acted to enforce the return of the gifts (which are property of the state) which Netanyahu received in the framework of his position as prime minister during his previous tenure, and chose not to return them to the state’s possession in contravention of the law,” the organization stated on Wednesday.

“It must be mentioned that Netanyahu has a record in this field,” said Hiddai Negev from the MQG following the submission of the petition on Wednesday.

“After the police raided his [private Caesarea] home [in 1999] and found gifts received during his tenure as prime minister, they recommended he be prosecuted on suspicion of theft by an authorized person,” said Negev.

“Now, after we received the list of the missing gifts and the actions taken to return them over the course of seven months — it seems that the law enforcement authorities are dragging their feet in opening another investigation on suspicion of theft offenses by an authorized person,” Negev said. “The gifts that Netanyahu received belong to us – the public. He did not receive them as a private person but as our representative and we insist that he return them.”

A spokesperson for Netanyahu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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