(photo credit: Courtesy)
Before Binyamin Netanyahu’s current tenure as prime minister, his public stature
and speaking ability resulted in immense demand for his presence as a speaker at
political and charity events. In many cases Netanyahu’s wife Sarah accompanied
him, and often her presence was also in demand. The two had a very active travel
schedule, and their flights and stays were paid for by friends of the hosting
organizations and by friends of the Netanyahus – with a great overlap between
the two. Another common denominator is that many of these individuals have
financial interests in Israel that Netanyahu is in a position to
There was obviously nothing secret about these trips. On the
contrary, the whole point in most cases was to take advantage of Netanyahu’s
presence in order to generate publicity for the event. There is also nothing
newsworthy about them, insofar as they took place years ago.
some individuals, including some of Netanyahu’s political rivals, have decided
quite recently that the Netanyahu’s erstwhile travel habits should be
scrutinized, due to a concern for violation of Knesset ethics rules (Netanyahu
was a Knesset member and for some trips a minister) or perhaps even breach of
the law. The concern is that the funding was above and beyond what was called
for in order to enable Netanyahu to come and speak and could be considered
bribery on the part of the sponsors to try and influence Netanyahu’s position on
issues of concern to them. A representative of the Kadima party asked the
Attorney General to investigate if criminal charges are warranted.
parallel, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss announced that he also will
scrutinize the affair, opining that “it is improper that a public figure’s
travel should be paid by donors.” The comptroller requested that the Knesset
State Control Committee grant him broadened authority to investigate the matter,
which was granted him in a hastily arranged session attended by only three
Knesset members, all Kadima members from the anti- Netanyahu side of the Kadima
The allegations against Netanyahu seem unlikely to lead anywhere,
since there is nothing either secret or new about the events in
But if there are substantive suspicions of influence peddling
then it is appropriate for the Attorney General to examine the legal aspects of
the trip financing or for the Knesset legal advisor or the Knesset ethics
committee to scrutinize the ethical aspects.
The involvement of the
comptroller is more difficult to justify. The comptroller’s job, as the title
indicates, is to audit the fiscal administration of the executive
Government ministers and government offices have significant
discretion, and not every act that is strictly legal will reflect proper fiscal
management. There doesn’t seem to be any overlap between the comptroller’s
mandate and the concerns raised by the Netanyahus’ travels.
Even if this
is considered within his ambit, there is nothing extraordinary in the case that
would justify giving the comptroller extraordinary powers. If there was
influence peddling, it was of a very pedestrian variety in terms of the means
employed and in terms of the kind of influence allegedly sought. No one has
accused Netanyahu of abusing his authority in regard to any of the people who
financed his travels with sums that are not particularly large.
appears to me an extremely disturbing instance of abuse of power. A Knesset
committee has granted special law enforcement powers to be used specifically
against a political rival of the committee members. In general Knesset
committees need care to use their powers with discretion, but when it comes to
the coercive power of law enforcement the caution required is that much greater.
The incident recalls the ugly incident of the special prosecutor investigating
President Clinton, who arrogated to himself extensive powers and became party to
a political vendetta which ultimately resulted in Clinton’s bizarre impeachment.
Another parallel would be the infamous 17th century English Star Chamber, which
was set up with the worthy goal of having a special court that would neutralize
the undue influence of powerful defendants but did so by depriving these
defendants of normal legal rights so that the defendants’ supposed excessive
legal influence resulted in stripping them of even basic rights.
allegations against Netanyahu are for a very ordinary and banal version of
influence peddling. I doubt the allegations will lead anywhere, but I am certain
that no extraordinary investigative powers are
Asher Meir is research director at the
Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem
College of Technology (Machon Lev).