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(photo credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry)
Less than two months after he accepted responsibility for severe excesses incurred during a government-sponsored visit to the Paris Air Salon in June, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is again under scrutiny on suspicion of ministerial misconduct.
The Knesset Ethics Committee ruled on Monday morning that Barak was taking favors when he accepted an upgrade offer made to him by El Al on a transatlantic flight from New York to Israel. Barak's ticket and that of his wife Nili Priel were upgraded from business class to first class on November 10, following an official visit to the US.
The Ethics Committee, chaired by Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, determined that Barak would be obligated to reimburse the state for the value of the upgrade. The committee convened to discuss the issue following a complaint filed by MK Uri Ariel (National Union).
"Such an upgrade, especially on a transatlantic flight, is significant - there is no question about it," Ariel told the committee.
In his defense, Barak stated that the upgrade had been offered to him as a former prime minister and not as defense minister or MK. He went on to explain that El Al routinely offered upgrades and other gestures to former prime ministers and other high-ranking officials, rendering the incident neither irregular nor punishable. No conflict of interests occurred, he stressed.
The Labor party's official response was significantly more critical. "The Knesset Ethics Committee's decision is absurd, bordering on hypocritical," it read. "Former prime ministers and senior government officials, among them Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were offered upgrades on El Al flights for years ... if this practice is to be changed, it must be changed in a forward-looking manner, and not at anyone's expense."
"Lamentably, the sport of 'knocking' the Labor party chairman around has become popular among frustrated MKs and political rivals," it continued.
The Ethics Committee did not push for harsh measures against Barak, as he had apparently accepted the offer in good faith, out of a misguided belief that this was the norm for those who had formerly served as prime ministers.
However, the committee remained firm in its conviction that the gift was one favor Barak should have turned down. "As long as there is a danger that the public will construe favors given to ministers as related to their Knesset positions - [favors] must be prohibited," the committee ruled, citing the importance of gaining public trust for the government.
The defense minister and his wife are also under investigation on suspicion of hiring an illegal migrant worker from the Philippines to clean his Tel Aviv home.