During his stint as finance minister over a decade ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had private donors and organizations fund most of his trips as well as cover travel expenses for his wife and children, and failed to clear the information with the Knesset, a state comptroller report published Tuesday found.
In the report, Comptroller Yosef Shapira chided Netanyahu for failing to approach legal experts to weigh in on whether the trips, between 2003 and 2005, represented a conflict of interest or illicit gifts. Some allegations were omitted from the report, pending the attorney general’s examination of the case, Shapira said.
The Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday said the report indicated a “mountain was made out of a molehill” in the affair, and charged that the state comptroller was attempting to retroactively apply regulations on ministerial travel that were formulated in 2008. Netanyahu denied the allegations of criminal conduct and said he was “convinced” the attorney general would not find reason to launch an investigation.
The complicated affair, dubbed “Bibi Tours” by the Hebrew press, centers on allegations that Netanyahu double billed travel expenses while serving as a member of Knesset and minister in prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government. It was first reported by Channel 10 in 2011.
Channel 2 on Monday night said police were seeking to determine whether there were grounds to reopen a full criminal investigation into alleged irregularities by Netanyahu, and the Justice Ministry said it, too, was looking into the report.
A press release from the comptroller’s office maintained that Shapira had pressed then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein in 2015 to reopen an investigation into several matters, given the “suspicion of criminal [wrongdoing].” In 2014, Weinstein had decided against opening a criminal probe, but his successor, Avichai Mandelblit, has yet to rule on whether to reopen the case in light of the more recent evidence.
After Weinstein decided against launching an investigation in 2014, Shapira said he pursued the case for the report, and in May and December 2015 handed over additional information to Weinstein that he assessed could be criminal — namely the allegations of double billing, diversion of funds, and using the state’s frequent-flyer miles for personal use. Given the attorney general’s ongoing evaluation of the materials, those issues could not be explicitly addressed in the report, a statement from Shapira’s office said.
Of Netanyahu’s 15 trips as finance minister, seven were funded by the treasury, the report said. Other trips were funded by a foreign government, Jewish organizations, Israel Bonds, and an unnamed international organization. The Israel Bonds and other unnamed organizations and businessmen covered other travel expenses, including hotels, and the travel expenses of Sara Netanyahu and their children on several occasions.
The comptroller “found that the travels of Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu and his family, funded by outside sources while he served as finance minister, deviated from the regulations on the subject, and the matter is liable to give the impression that he accepted benefits or [had a] conflict of interest. It will be noted that in all of those cases, like other ministers at that period, Mr. Netanyahu did not turn to the committees on gifts or permissions to evaluate whether” it was legal, it said.
The report maintained that Netanyahu’s decision not to consult with the legal authorities was standard practice at the time, as most ministers also failed to seek approval from the Knesset’s legal panels before they traveled on outside sponsorships.
While the cabinet approved the trips, it was no more than a “rubber stamp” since the funding was not evaluated, the report said.
In January 2005, the Netanyahus and their sons were put up in a hotel in London by a British Jewish businessman, “B.,” who shouldered the £8,568 (approx. $12,500) tab. “Businessman B. has ventures in Israel in real estate, tourism and more,” the report said, although it stopped short of saying Netanyahu was in a position to assist B.’s ventures. In another example, a nonprofit lobbying for “free market principles” paid $11,920 to cover Netanyahu’s expenses in a visit to the US.
“As stated, the gifts law prohibits public servants including ministers… from receiving a gift that is an asset or benefit with nothing given in exchange,” the report said. “A present according to the law is also a gift given to a relative of a public servant, including a partner or child. The law allows public servants to ask the gift committee to approve the gift, and the committee has the authority to determine that there is no ethical impropriety in accepting the gift.”
The report also noted that Netanyahu, in 2005, recommended the extension of the tenure of the director of Israel Bonds, which had funded trips and expenses for him and his family. It noted that the “established practice” is for either the Israeli prime minister or finance minister to recommend directors of the Israel Bonds to the body’s board.
Netanyahu’s office in response said that “after years of bombastic headlines and an incredible number of reports, it turns out a mountain was made out of a molehill.”
“In Mr. Netanyahu’s travels there were no conflicts of interest, no double billing, and nothing illegal. The attorney general already evaluated the materials the comptroller submitted to him in 2013, and determined there was no cause to open an investigation. We are convinced that the same will be done with the contents handed over in 2015.
“The state comptroller determined that Netanyahu acted precisely like other ministers and that, at the time, the regulations on ministers’ travel had not yet been set,” the statement added. “The rules on the ministers’ travel were only set in 2008, while the report only addresses a period until 2005. The attempt to retroactively impose on Netanyahu, and only on Netanyahu, rules that were established after the fact is inappropriate.”
The report was formally lodged with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday, and Mandelblit, the attorney general and Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, must now decide whether to open an investigation.
MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid), who heads the Knesset’s State Control Committee, said she had requested updates from the attorney general and suggested that former attorney general Weinstein had glossed over the affair.
“As everyone knows today, Weinstein couldn’t make a decision [since May 2015], or perhaps he didn’t want to make a decision and passed it on to the new attorney general,” she said.
Elharar also maintained the information omitted from the state comptroller report “and what the public is not being told” was “more important” than the report itself.
“I am confident the attorney general will do his work swiftly and seriously,” she said. “Israeli citizens deserve to know that their prime minister is innocent of criminal conduct. In the event that a decision is made that there is no criminal angle here, I will demand the state comptroller publish all the portions that were not included in the report published today.”