[email protected]: ‘Bibi-Tours’ and the Star Chamber

Expanded authority to investigate the prime minister is an abuse of power by his political rivals.

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 advance.
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.
Even so, 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.
In 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 family.
The allegations against Netanyahu seem unlikely to lead anywhere, since there is nothing either secret or new about the events in question.
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 branch.
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.
This 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.
The 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 justified.
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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).