Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu is determined to find out who is behind a series of reports in several media outlets over the past month that he believes were intentionally leaked to prevent him from returning to the Prime Minister's Office, sources close to Netanyahu said Sunday. Netanyahu devoted the day to clearing his name via a speech to the Likud's governing secretariat in Ashkelon and an NIS 2 million lawsuit against Channel 10 for its reports that he spent NIS 131,000 on a public relations trip to London during the Second Lebanon War. His associates said his next step would be to determine which of his political adversaries had conspired with the press to try to bring him down. In Netanyahu's meetings and conversations with allies and advisers over the past few days, fingers have been pointed toward people in Kadima and Labor. The name of Netanyahu's Likud rival MK Silvan Shalom was also raised, but Netanyahu and his closest advisers have apparently rejected the possibility. Sources close to Netanyahu said they were looking into the possibility that a current or former official at the Israeli Embassy in London leaked information to Channel 10. "This report was a political maneuver that is being engineered because my opponents are trying to discredit me," Netanyahu told secretariat members. "They know elections are near and the closer we get to elections, the more the attacks will come. I am not scared of this, and we will not be harmed." In the lawsuit, Netanyahu charged that Channel 10 had not engaged in investigative journalism but had received the story in its final form from someone who was out to hurt him politically, and that the news station had not bothered to conduct an independent investigation of the facts but had broadcast the story at face value. By not checking or verifying the information, Channel 10 "knowingly turned into a tool serving deliberate political persecution," Netanyahu charged. He accused Channel 10 of broadcasting "a defamation that included lies and false information, half truths and distortions" in its reports alleging that he and his wife, Sara, had spent NIS 131,000 in six days during a speaking tour in London in August 2006. In addition to that sum, the reports said that Israel Bonds had paid Sara Netanyahu's first class round trip fare at a cost of NIS 44,000. Itemized costs listed by the program included NIS 12,000 per night for the hotel suite at the plush Connaught Hotel, NIS 17,000 in meals, NIS 11,000 for theater tickets, NIS 4,000 for laundry service and NIS 2,500 for hairstyling. In the lawsuit filed by his lawyer, Yaakov Weinroth, in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, Netanyahu maintained that:
He had not gone on a "pleasure spree," but an intensive information campaign to counter Arab propaganda.
He paid the couple's personal expenses, totaling NIS 12,000, from his own pocket.
It was not "anonymous elements," as Channel 10 had reported, that paid for the trip, but well-known and respected Jewish organizations.
He had not gone to London theaters "all the time" as the report had claimed. He went once, at the end of a heavy day of interviews and appearances on behalf of Israel, at his own expense. The cost was maliciously inflated in the report.
He did not receive any benefits in return for his speeches and therefore did not violate the Knesset code of ethics or the Civil Service Law (Gifts).
The expenditures listed in the report included the costs incurred in hosting leaders and journalists whom he met at the hotel.
"I paid for everything out of my own pocket," Netanyahu told the Likud secretariat. "I acted for the state at no cost to the state."
Manchester financier Joshua Rowe, who heads the city's branch of the United Israel Appeal, paid for Netanyahu's hotel suite. He said Netanyahu insisted on paying back NIS 12,000 for his personal expenses.
"We usually find a sponsor when we bring in a speaker so the charities won't have to pay for it and I volunteered," Rowe told The Jerusalem Post Sunday. "Rockets were falling on Israel, yet the media was attacking Israel and the community was depressed. He spearheaded a nonstop hasbara [public diplomacy] offensive and lifted our spirits, just at the right time. He was outstanding as he always is, we were thrilled with what he did and if it cost three times as much, we still would have been satisfied."
Rowe said he had no business connections with Netanyahu and had received no personal gain from him. He said any former prime minister who came to England would be put up at a top hotel and that "unfortunately, a suite in London costs Â£1,000 a night and he stayed for a week."
Channel 10 reported Sunday that Netanyahu and his wife also went to London in January 2007 and told the Knesset the trip was paid for by Friends of the IDF, but the organization denied paying for anything other than his flight.
Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes said Sunday that Netanyahu never submitted any requests to the Knesset to authorize his trip during the Second Lebanon War, and therefore the Knesset Ethics Committee never looked into the details of the trip. This statement contradicted Netanyahu's claim that the Knesset Ethics Committee had approved retroactively all trips taken by his wife, Sara.
One Likud MK said the reports could be extremely damaging to Netanyahu's image.
"Netanyahu has tried to create a new image of himself as a man in touch with the people," the MK said. "This report goes to the heart of the old Netanyahu - the rich pompous man who was above the people and beyond their needs."
Likud central committee members said that the report had threatened the steady lead that the party has enjoyed in the polls since the Second Lebanon War.
"Netanyahu should be careful of how he treats this," a central committee member said. "So far, his actions are not impressive. He has not given concrete evidence to defend himself, and his behavior has kept this whole thing in the headlines."
Likud MKs Gilad Erdan and Yuval Steinitz, who have been dispatched to defend Netanyahu, both called the report a "malicious attempt" to derail Netanyahu's growing popularity.
"The country has come to support us because we represent the values they want to see," said Steinitz. "We can provide a safer state."
During his visit to Ashkelon, Netanyahu attempted to change the subject to security issues. He blasted the cabinet for its policy on rocket fire and said that the nation wanted a "new" and "improved" government that would focus on protecting its citizens.
"We cannot accept the prime minister's comments that Ashkelon residents must get used to living with missile fire," he said. "Nobody needs to get used to that."