TEL AVIV (AP): Israeli lawmakers advanced a bill on Monday that could allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep a $270,000 donation he received from a relative to pay for his legal fees as he battles corruption charges.
Netanyahu is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and says the accusations are part of a “witch hunt” orchestrated by a biased media, law enforcement and justice system.
The bill is part of a proposed overhaul of Israel’s legal system by Netanyahu’s new government. For over two months, the plan has drawn fierce protests in Israel, the largest seen in years.
Last year, Israel’s high court ordered Netanyahu to pay back the $270,000 given by a late cousin to cover the legal expenses for him and his wife. Aside from the protracted corruption trial, the Netanyahus have had to contend with fees surrounding a number of defamation suits both brought by them and against them.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara have earned a reputation for enjoying lavish lifestyles, both at the taxpayers’ expense and thanks to other people’s largesse. In one of the affairs Netanyahu is charged in, he is suspected of receiving boxes of cigars and champagne, as well as expensive jewelry for his wife, from the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
Netanyahu has long been saddled with an image of a being a cigar-smoking, cognac-swilling socialite. Together with his wife, he is seen by many Israelis as being out of touch with their day-to-day struggles. A recent parliamentary committee decision to approve new funding for the family’ s private residences in an exclusive seaside town and in Jerusalem, as well as an increase in spending on clothing expenses, only helped cement that feeling.
Monday’s bill, which passed 53-49, came a day after a ministerial committee also approved it. The bill still must overcome several votes before becoming law. But with Netanyahu’s government a majority in parliament, it is likely to be approved.
The bill would allow public officials accept donations for legal or medical bills, despite vocal objection by the country’s attorney general that this would promote corruption.
Netanyahu and his allies are pushing forward a series of proposals that would weaken the power of the country’s Supreme Court and judiciary. His allies say that the powers of unelected judges must be curbed. Critics say the changes will give too much power to the prime minister, eroding a system of checks and balances. They also say that Netanyahu has a conflict of interest by pushing forward the overhaul at a time when he is on trial.
Sara Netanyahu became caught up in the anti-overhaul protests last week, when demonstrators gathered outside a ritzy Tel Aviv salon where she was having her hair done. Scores of police officers were called in to escort her out of the salon and away from the jeering crowd.