Israel urges Netanyahu return gifts; he denies keeping them

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister’s office has urged former premier Benjamin Netanyahu to return dozens of expensive gifts he received while serving in the nation’s top job.

The request, confirmed Monday by the office of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, came as Netanyahu reportedly vacationed on a private island in Hawaii almost wholly 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 corruption trial.

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

Netanyahu, ousted from the top job and replaced by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in June, has denied all charges and has said he’s a victim of a smear campaign.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, confirmed the prime minister’s office contacted Netanyahu to return gifts he received as premier. The Maariv daily, which first broke the story, said Netanyahu has been asked to return 42 items, including gifts from former President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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 return those, according to a letter sent by the legal adviser in the prime minister’s office, Maariv said.

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 all gifts the law required to be returned have been given back, and that those “in question are not in the possession of former Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

The U.S.-educated Netanyahu, who spent some 15 total years as prime minister before he was ousted in June, has long had a reputation for living large.

During his first term in office in the 1990s Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, 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 spending. His spending on ice cream caused a meltdown when it was reported that in 2012 he’d budgeted 10,000 shekels (about $3,200) of taxpayer money for his favorite flavors, vanilla and pistachio, for family and staff.

More outrage ensued the next 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 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 contended 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 bargain.

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

Now, Netanyahu himself is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases while he served as prime minister.

Among the witnesses prosecutors have named is Ellison, though it is unclear why. Ellison bought almost all 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 are paying for a vacation out of their own pocket.

But others on holiday on the island have relayed sightings to the The Associated Press of a conspicuous Hebrew-speaking security retinue on the Pacific idyll. Yair Netanyahu also was spotted on Lanai, the vacationers said.

Photos and other accounts on social media appear to confirm 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 there in coronavirus infections.

Netanyau’s family is required to go into a mandatory one-week quarantine upon their return to Israel.

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Kellman reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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