Facing strong opposition, coalition puts off bill to let PM keep gifted money

The coalition government has postponed work on a bill that would allow public servants to keep gift money to cover medical and legal fees, following a filibuster threat from the opposition and reports of heavy pressure from the coalition government.

The bill, which has been widely criticized by critics as legislation tailored to the personal needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and which the Attorney General’s Office has described as “opening the door to corruption in the entire public service,” will not come to a vote. start as planned on Sunday. and it will be pushed out until the next Knesset session, which begins on April 30.

Sponsored by the prime minister’s Likud party, the bill would help Netanyahu keep a $270,000 gift he received from his late cousin to fund legal costs in his ongoing trial. The High Court of Justice ruled the gift improper and ordered Netanyahu to return the money to his cousin’s estate, which Netanyahu has yet to do.

It would also allow Netanyahu to tap NIS 4 million ($1.1 million) raised last year as part of a crowdfunding effort to pay his legal fees. The account has been frozen, pending a legal opinion that Netanyahu can use the money.

In addition, the bill would allow hundreds of thousands of Israeli civil servants and their families to receive financial gifts and complicate oversight of potential corruption. As a senior Justice Ministry official testified to a Knesset committee on Sunday, the bill enables a mechanism that “can be misused to conceal criminal offenses.”

Although Likud has proposed it as a handout for public servants and their families in need of financial support, Justice Ministry officials and the opposition have criticized the bill as a gateway to corruption, raising suspicions that it is targeted “personally” for the benefit of Netanyahu.

Likud MK Ofir Katz, who runs the committee that prepares the legislation for votes, had scheduled a vote for Thursday morning to advance the bill to its first reading on the Knesset floor on Sunday.

But coalition MKs, particularly from the ultra-Orthodox parties, demanded that the separation bill not be brought forward at this time, fearing a backlash and arguing that such a move would not contradict the reconciliation message of the recent government and ongoing dialogue with the opposition. on the highly controversial judicial overhaul plan.

The Hebrew media quoted members of the United Torah and Shas Judaism parties, as well as other parties, as saying that the donation bill was “suggestively viewed” and that Shas leader Aryeh Deri had agreed to delay it. separate bill. aimed at personal gain, which would allow him to be appointed as a minister despite his recent High Court disqualification.

Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Merav Michaeli and Avigdor Liberman meet in Jerusalem on 13 March 2023 to coordinate the opposition’s strategy for judicial reform. (Yesh Atid)

In addition, opposition leader Yair Lapid and the leaders of other opposition parties issued a joint statement on Wednesday afternoon criticizing the coalition government for violence during a special legislative session on Sunday, the last day before the Passover holiday, and threatening interfere with it.

“It is not enough that the plenum does not meet on the week of Passover, except in exceptional cases. [but now] MKs are supposed to vote on a bill that could corrupt the entire public sector,” the statement said.

He said the opposition would refuse to engage in a common pairing practice, where MKs from both sides of the aisle agree together not to avoid a vote when one of their opponents is inevitably absent. The opposition also threatened to table a bill planned for the same day – sought by the Haredi parties – on improving safety for the well-attended religious pilgrimage event at Mount Meron, rather than moving it forward smoothly. by agreement as intended.

“We emphasize that we will not allow this, and that all opposition factions will face the corrupt gifts bill. We urge the coalition government to reconsider the matter and prevent raising the gift bill,” the Yesh Atid leader warned.

Shortly after the opposition’s threat was issued, Hebrew media said the gift bill was being shelved for the time being.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) speaks with Education Minister Yoav Kisch in the Knesset, March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last Sunday, Oren Fono, a senior official in the Department of Legal Counsel and Legislative Affairs of the Ministry of Justice, told the Knesset House Committee that “cases where a public servant receives a favor because he is a public servant and will create donations may be allowed. dependency between public servants and their donors.”

This “opens the door to corruption in the entire public service,” the attorney general’s representative warned.

Fono also pointed out that public servants could already accept such gifts from friends and family, provided they do not accept them in their capacity as public servants.

Knesset legal adviser Sagit Afik voiced those concerns, saying the proposal is “likely to create a fundamental conflict of interest for Knesset members” and that despite recent changes, “it still amounts to a departure from maintaining integrity. “

She added that the bill could lead to the crumbling of “the fortified wall” and the legislature opposes threats to public confidence.

Linking the bill to Netanyahu’s desire to keep his $270,000 gift for legal expenses amid his ongoing trial on graft charges, Fono also said “the speed with which the bill is being advanced raises concerns that it is intended to benefits the prime minister personally.”

File: Nathan Milikowsky in 2013, in San Francisco (Drew Altizer Photography)

Netanyahu’s cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, gave $300,000 to the Netanyahus from 2017 to 2018, and $30,000 was later paid back. He died in July 2021 at the age of 78.

In 2021, the High Court of Justice ordered Netanyahu to return the funds to Milikowsky’s estate, after ruling that it was an improper gift. Netanyahu has been ordered to return the sum by the end of April 2023.

Last year, pundit and former MK Yinon Magal, a prominent host of the Pro-Netanyahu Channel 14, raised about 4 million NIS in a crowdfunding campaign for Netanyahu’s legal fees, and the main discussion was whether he would accept a plea deal to close his graft trials. . Netanyahu ultimately rejected the deal, but was prevented from tapping the funds.

Last Wednesday, Magal told Hebrew Radio 103FM that “the money is waiting for the decision on this law, the law of gifts.”

“The law is that you are allowed to receive money for the benefit of a so-called legal proceeding. So it fits right into this situation,” he said.

The judges also ruled last year that a NIS 2 million ($566,000) loan Netanyahu received from real estate mogul Spencer Partrich was a prohibited gift, but could be repaid by agreement, with State Comptroller oversight, since the loan approved by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

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