Watchdog group cries foul as Likud proposes law to ease donations to lawmakers

Bill would let public servants more easily receive funding for legal expenses, permitting Netanyahu to keep $270,000 he was supposed to pay back to cousin’s estate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has proposed a bill that would allow public servants to more freely receive donations, after the High Court of Justice last year ordered the premier to return funding given to him for legal expenses.

The law, if passed, would allow Netanyahu to keep $270,000 he has been ordered to give back to the estate of his deceased cousin and former benefactor Nathan Milikowsky, on the grounds that the funds were an illicit gift, Channel 12 reported.

Netanyahu was supposed to return the funds by this month.

The bill proposed by Likud MK Amit Halevi would allow a public servant to receive financial contributions for legal processes or necessary medical expenses, on the condition that the funding is only used for that purpose.

It would also allow donations for legal and medical expenses for other members of a public servant’s family, and for minor crowdfunding campaigns, the report said.

The proposal would bar a public servant from receiving funding from a corporation, a minor, or contributions made in cash. It would also disallow anonymous contributions of over NIS 2,500 (around $720).

“This proposed law is a basic moral defense for all public servants in the service of the state for unusual or unexpected events, with full transparency,” Halevi said.

Likud MK Amit Halevi speaks during a visit to the Oz Vegaon nature reserve in Gush Etzion, West Bank, October 22, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The proposal was strongly denounced by an anti-corruption watchdog group.

“The newly proposed law, besides being a personal proposal clearly tailored to benefit Netanyahu, opens the door for corruption,” said lawyer Omer Makayes of the Movement for Pure Morals, an anti-corruption organization. The group has filed a petition against the new law, according to Channel 12.

“There is already a law that allows receiving assistance for legal defense, on the condition that it’s not assistance given to someone because they are a public servant,” Makayes said, meaning that Netanyahu could already receive funding for legal expenses, as long as it was not tied to his role as prime minister.

For example, an official cannot receive funds from a subordinate, or from someone they have influence over in their public office.

The anti-corruption group claimed the proposed law is unbalanced, lacks proper oversight mechanisms and will likely lead to conflicts of interest.

Last year, the High Court of Justice determined that money from Milikowsky received by Netanyahu and his wife Sara to fund their legal fees while he served as prime minister during his last term, was a prohibited gift to a public servant.

The justices ruled that although Milikowsky and Netanyahu were cousins, business interests were a more dominant factor in the reason for the gift, and the money went way beyond what was acceptable as a routine gift between family members.

Milikowsky died in 2021 at the age of 78.

File: Nathan Milikowsky in 2013, in San Francisco. (Drew Altizer Photography)

Justices also ruled last year that a NIS 2 million ($566,000) loan Netanyahu received from real estate mogul Spencer Partrich was a forbidden gift, but could be repaid according to their agreement, with supervision from the state comptroller, since the loan had been approved by the comptroller and attorney general.

The Netanyahu coalition is also pushing a dramatic judicial restructuring that would increase government control over the judiciary. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as the weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, and private companies.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end, and that his government was carrying out the will of the people.

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