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

Ministers approve cutting Netanyahu’s taxes: ‘If we don’t… he may quit’

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

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the PM's office in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the PM's office in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Cabinet ministers on Sunday approved a bill that would exempt the prime minister from paying taxes on certain assets, as the attorney general considers police recommendations to indict both Benjamin Netanyahu, for receiving illicit gifts worth up to 1 million shekels, and his wife, for misuse of state funds.

The legislation, authored by Netanyahu loyalist MK Miki Zohar, 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 for the state at his personal home.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s initial approval of the bill came 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 legislation will now progress to the Knesset for deliberation by MKs.

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 for the villa.

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 Sunday morning. “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 on which he spent NIS 450,000 to have a bed put 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 takeaway 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 Casearea 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 for a fraud investigation against the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netnayahu, in which police recommended she be indicted for diverting state funds for her personal use.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is reportedly set to bring charges against her in the coming weeks.

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 Israeli-born Hollywood producer Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.

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