Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have to return some $300,000 he received from a cousin and another benefactor to cover his legal defense fees in the corruption probes against him, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said late Monday.
In December, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s office denied Netanyahu’s request for businessman Nathan Milikowsky, who is based in the US, and American millionaire Spencer Partrich to cover his legal fees.
Shapira also reportedly asked Mandleblit last month to investigate whether Netanyahu had improperly received $300,000 from Milikowsky, who is his cousin, to fund his legal defense without getting the necessary permission from the State Comptroller’s Office.
In the cases against him, the prime minister is suspected of receiving benefits from rich benefactors in return for using his offices to advance their interests. In its December decision, the Comptroller’s Permits Committee said it was inappropriate for non-Israeli benefactors to pay for legal defense in a criminal case relating to receiving funds from wealthy benefactors.
The premier will now have to appeal to the committee to retroactively approve the donation, and if it will again rule against him he will be forced to return the money, which has already been handed to his lawyers.
Netanyahu’s attorney Navot Tel-Zur has argued that Netanyahu and his legal team had believed that donations from a family member do not require the approval of the committee, adding that the funds from Milikowsky were received between March 2017 and March 2018, before the attorney general had clarified that such donations require approval.
Over the past year, attorneys for Netanyahu have sought permission for Milikowsky and Partrich to pay his legal bills in the three separate criminal investigations in which police have recommended he be indicted, including a probe that centers on lavish gifts from the prime minister’s billionaire friends.
Hadashot TV reported last month that in a renewed request to receive donations from Milikowsky and Partrich, Netanyahu has asked to receive a million dollars in the first phase and $2 million later on. He also reportedly said he would pay $100,000 out of pocket to help fund his legal defense.
Last year, both Milikowsky and Partrich were questioned by police in their investigation of Netanyahu dubbed Case 1000, in which the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving some NIS 1 million ($282,000) in illicit gifts from businessmen in return for certain benefits. In his testimony, Partrich admitted to police that he had bought Netanyahu a number of expensive suits but said Milikowsky paid him back for them, Haaretz reported in January.
High Court appeal thrown out
Also on Monday, the High Court of Justice rejected on a technicality a petition to force Mandelblit to hold off on announcing whether he plans on indicting Netanyahu in any of the cases until after the April 9 elections.
Attorney Yossi Fuchs filed the petition on Sunday, arguing that an announcement of an indictment pending a hearing would interfere in the electoral process and harm the value of equality.
But judges George Kara, Noam Solberg and Yitzhak Amit ruled that Fuchs — previously an activist in Netanyahu’s Likud party — wasn’t the right person to file such a petition on behalf of the Israeli public, since he wasn’t going to be personally affected by the decision on Mandelblit’s timing.
Netanyahu’s lawyers are reportedly considering filing a similar High Court petition of their own.
In addition to the investigation into the gifts he received from billionaire benefactors, Netanyahu is being investigated in two other probes — cases 2000 and 4000 — involving potential quid pro quo deals for regulatory favors or beneficial legislation in exchange for positive media coverage. Police have recommended that he be indicted for bribery in all three cases, a charge that state prosecutors reportedly also favor in at least one of the cases.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing, and has accused police, media, and law enforcement of waging a witch hunt against him.
Mandelblit, Israel’s top legal officer, is expected to publish his conclusions on the three cases within the next few weeks, having informed Netanyahu’s lawyers earlier Friday that he has rejected the prime minister’s demand that any decision to indict be postponed until after Israel’s April 9 elections.
Mandelblit can only file charges after holding a hearing with Netanyahu, which will likely not take place until after the election.
Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him, pending a hearing, in any of the cases against him, asserting that the law does not require him to do so. Mandelblit has confirmed that this is the case.
Israeli law only requires that a prime minister step down if convicted, but experts have suggested that Netanyahu may also face pressure from jurists and fellow lawmakers if he seeks to stay in office should a formal indictment be filed at the completion of a hearing process.
Under law and High Court of Justice precedent, ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such a situation. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.
Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.