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'If he were a private citizen, he would be earning millions'

Knesset committee approves cutting Netanyahu’s taxes to boost ‘pitiful’ salary

Legislation would exempt prime minister from paying duties on car and utility expenses at his Caesarea coastal villa

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting in the Knesset on February 12, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting in the Knesset on February 12, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Knesset Finance Committee on Monday approved for a first plenum reading a bill that would exempt the prime minister from paying taxes on certain assets, as the attorney general considers police recommendations to indict Benjamin Netanyahu for receiving illicit gifts worth up to 1 million shekels, and days after his wife was charged for misuse of state funds.

The legislation, authored by Likud MK Miki Zohar, considered a Netanyahu loyalist, would provide the prime minister with “a tax exemption for payments, services and gifts given to him in the framework of his job, excluding his salary,” according to the text of the bill. Specifically, the law would exempt the premier from taxes on his state-issued car and on utility bills paid by the state at his personal home.

The committee’s approval of the bill comes after the High Court ruled in December that fees paid by the state for the upkeep of the Netanyahus’ Caesarea property, which is owned by the couple but defined as an official state residence, count as taxable benefits given to a public servant.

The committee voted 8-7 in favor of the bill, along coalition-opposition lines.

Following the committee vote, coalition sources said the Knesset plenary was likely to vote on the first reading as early as Monday afternoon. The bill would then require two more chamber votes to become law.

If passed into law, Netanyahu would profit by some NIS 8,000 ($2,200) a month in tax rebates, since he currently has to pay around NIS 3,000 in taxes on his car and NIS 5,000 on the residence.

Netanyahu earns a gross monthly salary of NIS 48,800 ($12,500), according to a pay slip made public by the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2016. After income, national health insurance and social security tax deductions and vehicle expenses, the prime minister’s net monthly income stands at NIS 17,600 ($4,500).

According to Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, it is “completely unacceptable” that the prime minister earns such a “pitiful and pathetic salary.”

“I understand that public officials are not meant to earn as much as business tycoons, but there is a limit to what the state has to take,” Zohar said last week before the bill received initial ministerial apporval. “No one has any doubt that if Netanyahu were a private citizen, he would be earning millions and would not need any help.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar attends a committee meeting at the Knesset on November 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Zohar added: “If we don’t take care of the prime minister’s salary, I worry, along with many citizens, that he may leave his position.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on whether Netanyahu was considering leaving public service in order to pursue a more lucrative career.

In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated Netanyahu’s net worth to be NIS 42 million ($11 million) making him the fourth-richest politician in Israel at the time, behind Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, then-Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit and then-minister Silvan Shalom. He is currently the richest member of Israel’s 120-seat parliament.

Netanyahu’s financial mores have been the subject of intense public scrutiny and, at times, scathing criticism, amid reports of excessive use of state funds, including NIS 80,000 ($20,000) a year on water at his Caesarea home, a NIS 10,000 ($2,500) monthly budget for ice cream, and a five-hour flight for which he spent NIS 450,000 ($125,000) to have a bed installed in a plane.

Demonstrators near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea, May 25, 2018 (Courtesy)

In 2015, a state comptroller report found that expenditures at the prime minister’s residence had been excessive and improper, highlighting exorbitant spending on food, cleaning and clothing among other areas, and that budgetary practices had not been carried out with integrity and transparency.

The comptroller highlighted and criticized, for instance, hundreds of thousands of shekels spent annually on takeout food, even though the residence employed a cook; excessive spending on the couple’s home in Caesarea, even though it was only used on weekends; and the employment of a Likud Central Committee member, Avi Fahima, as a private electrician on the weekends and even on Yom Kippur at the Caesarea home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend the opening ceremony of the inauguration of the new emergency ward at the Barzilay hospital, in Ashkelon, Israel on February 20, 2018. (Flash90)

Some of those findings formed the basis of a fraud investigation against the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, in which she was indicted last week for charging some NIS 359,000 ($100,000) in gourmet meals to the state’s expense between 2010 and 2013, violating laws that ban the ordering of prepared food when a chef is employed at the official residence, according to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

The Netanyahus have denied wrongdoing, calling the indictment “a new height of absurdity.

At the same time, Mandelblit is also reportedly considering bringing bribery charges against Benjamin Netanyahu in so-called Case 1000, or the gifts case, one of several corruption probes against the premier.

The case, which police handed over to the prosecution in February with recommendations for a bribery charge, involves suspicions that the prime minister and his wife received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, including Israel-born Hollywood producer Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.

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