Likud minister Gila Gamliel, already facing calls for her dismissal for violating coronavirus lockdown rules and misleading the Health Ministry about doing so, was accused in a Saturday night TV probe of “mixing the private and the public” in terms of her use of taxpayers’ money and official resources.
Gamliel upgraded to one of New York’s most expensive hotels at an extra cost to the public purse of thousands of dollars, claiming an allergic reaction to the hotel where she was supposed to stay; was accompanied by five members of her family on a six-day working visit to Austria in which she did relatively little official work; and has used her government car and driver to deliver her kids to school, Channel 12 reported.
Gamliel, Israel’s minister for environmental protection, said it was unfortunate that the TV station had chosen to attack her with old allegations when she was still battling her COVID-19 infection, and denied any wrongdoing.
Most of the allegations leveled in the TV report related to the period from 2015 to earlier this year when Gamliel was minister for social equality.
The report said that she upgraded from an $800 suite at 1 Hotel Central Park in New York to the Mandarin Oriental when on a ministerial trip in March 2019, after claiming to have an allergic attack at the Central Park hotel, which had been booked at her specific request, with special allergenic rooms.
The accountant-general at the Prime Minister’s Office, which was responsible for her ministry’s finances, protested the extra cost and required her to personally repay some NIS 10,000 (almost $3,000). She refused to do so, a six-month battle ensued, her office blamed an aide for what had occurred and the accountant-general eventually abandoned the effort. In a statement, the accountant-general confirmed that Gamliel was not ultimately required to pay back the money, having “clarified the circumstances of the incident.”
From 2015-2018, Gamliel flew abroad 24 times on ministerial business, spending 120 days overseas in all, with further trips in 2019, at a cost to the taxpayer of some NIS 400,000 ($120,000). Among the destinations cited in the report were Rhodes, Estonia, Belarus, Vienna, London, Barcelona, Madrid, New York and Los Angeles. Pressed on the frequency of these trips in an Army Radio interview included in the TV report, Gamliel dismissed the implied criticism as “not serious.” The interviewer acknowledged she had held many meetings with the respective Jewish communities.
On one trip to Vienna in summer 2018, Gamliel spent six days in the Austrian capital, with what the TV report indicated was a light official itinerary. It turned out that her husband, their two daughters and his parents were in Vienna at the same time, the TV report established. Her relatives paid for their own flights and hotels, but the state paid for VIP treatment at the airport for five people, at a cost of 1,950 euros ($2,300), and a large van to take them from the airport at double the expected price. Her hotel suite cost 2,760 euros ($3,265) for five nights, the report said.
Gamliel’s father-in-law said they had chosen to take a holiday to Austria at the same time and that there was nothing wrong in that. He also said his daughter-in-law “gives her soul for the state.”
Months-long efforts by the Movement for Freedom of Information finally yielded an official itinerary for the Vienna trip that included a meeting with an Austrian trade official — Martha Schultz, Vice President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber — a meeting that, Schultz told the Movement, did not take place. A subsequent itinerary, provided to the Shakuf (Transparency) group which also looked into her trip, had been “upgraded” with further meetings added and the Schultz meeting no longer listed.
Noting that Gamliel’s two daughters attend the King Solomon School in Ramat Hasharon, the TV report said Gamliel’s driver and official car have been used to drive the girls to school, in apparent breach of rules requiring the vehicle and driver be reserved for official business.
In a statement in response to the report, Gamliel’s office noted that she was still battling coronavirus “and we are sorry you chose to continue to attack her with old allegations while she’s still recovering.”
It said all her work trips abroad “included professional and government meetings, were undertaken within the ministerial [and other official] frameworks… and produced achievements including compensation for thousands of Holocaust survivors from the German government and a mechanism for assessing the scale of the property left behind by Jews from Arab countries and Iran. All the work trips were made according to the law and according to the rules.”
The Israel Police last Tuesday conveyed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit the results of an initial probe of Gamliel for allegedly violating the national COVID-19 lockdown and withholding information on her whereabouts from the Health Ministry for over 24 hours. It is up to the attorney general to rule whether police will open a criminal investigation into Gamliel.
Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu on Friday intimated that Gamliel lied to Health Ministry epidemiological investigators looking into how she became infected, apparently trying to conceal that she had broken quarantine. After being repeatedly asked if Gamliel lied, Gamzu conceded that “it was hard to get all the details [from her.]” There were certain things that “didn’t match up” in her account to investigators, he told Channel 12.
Gamliel has allowed that she may not have handled the lockdown situation correctly. “I acted in line with guidelines, though it is possible I erred in my judgment. I am sorry, I will pay the fine,” she said in a statement last Monday.
Gamliel announced last weekend that she had been infected with the coronavirus, and faced calls for her dismissal or resignation after she admitted that she broke the lockdown limit by traveling from her Tel Aviv home to the northern city of Tiberias. She also reportedly tried to hide the trip from a Health Ministry epidemiological investigation into her infection.
Gamliel spent the Yom Kippur fast, last Sunday evening and Monday, at a synagogue in Tiberias, where her father-in-law is the rabbi.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was waiting for investigators to uncover the “full picture” before drawing conclusions on the conduct of Gamliel, a senior member of his Likud party.
“We are all obligated to follow the rules, both with regard to gatherings and other rules related to the coronavirus. This includes ministers and Knesset members and all public servants,” he said. “On the matter of Minister Gamliel, I recommend waiting on the conclusions until the Health Ministry investigation is complete… We should operate based on facts and investigations and not preliminary reports.”
Israel has instated an ongoing national lockdown that, among other restrictions, limits Israelis to remaining within one kilometer of their homes except for work or essential needs. Visiting others’ homes is also banned.
Gamliel is not the first minister whose infection with COVID-19 uncovered apparent violations of government-ordered restrictions.
In April, then-health minister Yaakov Litzman was diagnosed with COVID-19, reportedly after having attended prayer services that at the time were banned under his own ministry’s orders during a previous lockdown.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid announced on Monday that MK Mickey Levy will resign from the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee “by joint agreement” after violating the lockdown rules.
Officials including Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi have also violated lockdown rules in recent days and apologized for doing so.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.