Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said that although a Knesset committee’s approval of retroactive tax benefits for him worth an estimated NIS 1 million (some $270,000) was justified, the timing was inappropriate.
“The Finance Committee hearing last week was justified but at the wrong time,” Netanyahu tweeted. “It is correct that I should not be charged with a personal levy that has never been imposed on any other prime minister… But the timing was not right, and for that I am sorry.”
The unity government has faced criticism for placing additional financial burdens on the state while the economy is struggling due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown measures aimed at stopping its spread.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party slammed the prime minister over the payout at a time of high unemployment and financial hardship.
“The discussion was not justified because you do not deserve a million shekels from the state coffers while there are hundreds of thousands of people unemployed and many self-employed are facing collapse,” Lapid said. “However, the timing is justified because he reminded everyone how detached [from the people] he and the government are.”
The Knesset Finance Committee last week voted to approve the controversial retroactive tax benefits for Netanyahu.
The benefits cover the cost of income tax Netanyahu owes due to upgrades to his vehicle, renovations at his private home in Caesarea, and other expenses dating back to 2009.
The clause effectively means Netanyahu will be absolved of all taxes not related to his salary or allowance, with Channel 12 noting that this could potentially include taxation on profits he made from stock trading and other private ventures.
The Likud party has denied that Netanyahu would seek reimbursement for taxes he paid on private investments and insisted that the tax benefits would only relate to expenses he incurred in his duty as prime minister.
In 2018, the Knesset passed legislation that absolves the prime minister of taxes for many of his private expenses. The law gave Netanyahu, one of the wealthiest lawmakers in the Knesset, an effective raise of NIS 200,000 ($58,300) per year.
The latest legislative clauses pertain to the period prior to the passage of that legislation.
Likud previously responded to reports about the Netanyahu tax clause by saying that the prime minister was not asking for anything that had not been granted to previous holders of the office.
However, The Marker newspaper noted that such issues are not believed to have come up at all for previous prime ministers, as they never made such funding demands from the state for private residences, certainly not on the scale of Netanyahu’s requests.
Public outcry over its approval of the tax benefits, as well as a spike in the number of coronavirus cases, meant that discussions by the Knesset Finance Committee on benefits for alternate prime minister Benny Gantz have been postponed.
The talks were set to take place on Sunday, after committee chairman United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni ended Tuesday’s discussions following a vote that passed Netanyahu’s tax breaks.
Gantz’s Blue and White party has said it is inappropriate for the talks to be held while the country is in a delicate economic situation due to the coronavirus pandemic, made worse as infection numbers continue to surge.
Gantz has previously expressed disinterest in receiving any benefits as alternate prime minister; any perks given to Gantz now would presumably transfer to Netanyahu were he to assume the post of alternate prime minister in 2021 as agreed.