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A box from Obama, a book from Putin: Israel’s Netanyahu is told to relinquish gifts

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in June.
(Maya Alleruzzo / Associated Press)

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has urged Benjamin Netanyahu to relinquish dozens of expensive gifts he received while serving as premier — gifts Netanyahu denies are in his possession.

The request, confirmed Monday by Bennett’s office, came as Netanyahu reportedly vacationed on a private island in Hawaii almost entirely owned by billionaire Larry Ellison. The Oracle founder is a friend of Netanyahu’s and also a witness for the prosecution in the former leader’s ongoing corruption trial.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and now the opposition leader, has a reputation for enjoying a lavish lifestyle, one often funded at taxpayer expense, and is on trial for allegedly accepting expensive gifts from wealthy associates.

Netanyahu, who was ousted from the top job in June, has denied all charges and described himself as the victim of a smear campaign.

The Maariv newspaper, which first broke the story about the gift-return request, said Netanyahu has been asked to turn over 42 items, including gifts from former President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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It is customary for foreign leaders to bestow gifts on each other during official trips. But gifts worth over a certain amount — 300 shekels, or about $90 — are the property of the state of Israel. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, did not turn those over, according to a letter sent by the legal advisor in Bennett’s office, Maariv said.

Israeli prosecutors have spelled out charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a corruption case in which he is accused of trading favors.

The unreturned gifts allegedly include a rectangular box made of glass decorated with gold leaves, bearing Obama’s signature, and the first book of the Bible from Putin. The list also reportedly includes gifts from French and German leaders, a pope and various benefactors and ambassadors.

In a statement, the Netanyahu family said that all gifts required by law to be relinquished have been turned over and that those “in question are not in the possession of former Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

During his first term in office in the 1990s Netanyahu and his wife were suspected of pocketing gifts and foreign contributions received from world leaders — items considered state property. The Netanyahus also were suspected of accepting favors from a contractor. Both cases were closed without charges.

Netanyahu’s recent term was filled with gossipy scandals about his official expenses. His spending on ice cream caused a meltdown when it was reported that, in 2012, he’d budgeted about $3,200 of taxpayer money for his favorite flavors, vanilla and pistachio, for family and staff.

Israeli parliament’s vote of confidence in the new government pushes Netanyahu aside, installing another right-wing leader, Naftali Bennett, in his place.

More outrage ensued the following year when it was reported that he spent $127,000 to furnish a bedroom aboard a plane for a five-hour flight to London to attend the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 2016, an official expense report revealed that Netanyahu spent more than $600,000 of public funds on a six-day trip to New York, including $1,600 on a personal hairdresser. Netanyahu said he was unaware of the cost and halted the practice.

Sara Netanyahu was charged in 2018 with misusing some $100,000 in public funds to order lavish meals from celebrity chefs at the prime minister’s official residence, even though she already had cooks on the government payroll. She later was ordered to pay a fine of some $15,000 as part of a plea agreement.

And in 2018, a recording surfaced of Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yair, joyriding with his super-rich buddies to Tel Aviv strip clubs on a drunken night out in a taxpayer-funded government vehicle.

Naftali Bennett, a right-wing Israeli politician, now stands somewhat surprisingly on the cusp of supplanting Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

Now, Netanyahu himself is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes while he was prime minister.

Among the witnesses prosecutors have named is Ellison, though it is unclear why. Ellison bought almost all of the island of Lanai in 2012 for a reported $300 million. He did not return calls seeking comment.

But Ellison and Netanyahu have long been reportedly close. The Haaretz daily reported that Ellison came forward to help Netanyahu with his legal representation in the criminal case, and that the former prime minister wanted the billionaire to buy some Israeli media properties, including a newspaper.

For weeks, the family spokesman refused to confirm that the Netanyahus were on vacation on Lanai, saying only that they were paying for a vacation out of their own pocket.

But vacationers on the island have relayed sightings to the Associated Press of a conspicuous Hebrew-speaking security detail on the island. Yair Netanyahu also was spotted on Lanai, the vacationers said.

Photos and other accounts on social media appear to confirm that the family stayed for two weeks in Ellison’s private enclave. One photo appeared to show a scowling Netanyahu sitting on a luggage cart in San Francisco’s airport on his way to Hawaii. Another showed him lying on the ground while apparently doing Pilates.

Asked about the propriety of hanging out with a witness in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, the family spokesman replied: “The law doesn’t forbid him from meeting with witnesses.”

The trip has also raised eyebrows because Netanyahu, who led the country’s fight against the coronavirus before he was ousted, ignored recommendations by government experts to avoid unnecessary travel abroad while the country grapples with the fast-spreading Delta variant.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige last week urged tourists to stay away, citing a surge in coronavirus infections.


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