Netanyahu in frequent flyer fracas

Channel 2 reveals opposition leader, other MKs violated directives by making personal use of points.

netanyahu hands up 224 8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
netanyahu hands up 224 8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and other MKs violated Knesset Ethics Committee directives when they made personal use of frequent flyer points accumulated from flights paid for by taxpayers, Channel 2 parliamentary correspondent Amit Segal revealed Thursday. According to the report, Netanyahu's wife, Sarah, used such points to fly to Paris in business class in December 2007, despite a directive banning such personal use that came into effect that February and had had been relayed to all MKs several times. The report found that Netanyahu had accrued 10,657 El Al frequent flyer points, which were worth $7,680 and could be used for flights worth NIS 26,000. Netanya's office disputed the report and said he actually had accumulated only half that number of points since the directive was issued. Sources close to Netanyahu suggested that he had been singled out unfairly and questioned how the press was able to discover such information. His associates downplayed the report, saying that he had only violated the rule once and that he immediately took care of the problem. "There was no use of public funds and Netanyahu did not take an agora to his pocket," a statement released by Netanyahu's office said. "Netanyahu did not take any action to obtain the points, which were accrued automatically. As soon as Netanyahu learned of the directive, he immediately gave Knesset director-general Avi Balashnikov the points he earned from publicly-funded flights and instructed El Al to change the payment for the one flight in question to points earned from flights he paid for personally," the statement continued. But in a follow-up report scheduled to be broadcast on Friday night, which was seen by The Jerusalem Post, Segal found that on multiple occasions, Netanyahu had used points accrued from flights paid for by taxpayer-funded organizations for first class and business class flights. While numerous Likud officials said the allegations against Netanyahu "don't look good," Likud MK Yuval Steinitz defended his political patron. "The rule is new, so he probably used the points by mistake," Steinitz said. "It's not that big a deal and there's no reason to get emotional." The only other lawmaker known to have used the frequent flyer points in violation of the directive is Kadima's Shai Hermesh, who said that he earned the points by mistake, and that he had asked El Al to cancel them. The prohibition on acquiring frequent flier points from flights paid for with public funds is based on clause four of the Knesset's ethics regulations, which states that "a member of Knesset shall not receive, directly or indirectly, material benefit in exchange for an act carried out in the Knesset or outside of it, in his role as an MK." But the regulation was not clear enough for some legislators. In early 2007, MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima), who is a frequent flyer, turned to the Ethics Committee to ask for clarification. In February 2007, in response, the committee ruled that "the responsibility for the fact that an MK's frequent flyer club won't be updated with benefits from flights that are not self-funded is placed on the MKs themselves, and they must clarify on each flight carried out as part of their job that they are not receiving any credit whatsoever." In the case of flights paid for by the Knesset itself for lawmakers who must travel as part of their role, the tickets are booked through the Knesset and - per regulation - without using MKs' frequent flyer identification numbers. In that case, MKs would have to retroactively add their account numbers to the travel itinerary after the flights were booked to acquire any points. But any time they fly overseas as part of their jobs, MKs are required to sign a form that includes a warning about the rule, reminding them that they may not accumulate frequent flier points. The Ethics Committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, although it is not certain the meeting will address the allegations against Netanyahu. Less than two weeks ago, the committee reprimanded Netanyahu regarding his wife's presence on a 2006 trip to London, saying it did not accept Netanyahu's explanation that the committee had already given his wife implied permission to join him on journeys in his capacity as a former prime minister.