JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's parliament has approved a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for tax exemptions for official benefits that could exceed $150,000.
Coming at a time when Israel is grappling with a major economic crisis due to the pandemic and Netanyahu standing trial on corruption charges, Tuesday's decision came under heavy criticism from opposition lawmakers and media commentators.
Netanyahu and his family have long been accused by critics of living a lavish lifestyle at taxpayer expense, in stark contrast with many Israelis who struggle with the country’s high cost of living, relatively low wages and high taxes.
The Knesset Finance Committee — which is controlled by Netanyahu's allies — approved his request Tuesday to grant retroactively tax exemptions on Netanyahu's state-covered expenses from 2009-2017. These expenses, which include some of the costs of maintaining Netanyahu's private house in the upscale coastal town of Caesaria, are usually treated as income under Israeli law.
Israeli opposition lawmakers blasted the committee for granting the tax rebates, both for the timing and the lack of transparency.
Micky Levy, an opposition member of the committee, said “nobody knows exactly” how much Netanyahu will receive. He said it was “over half a million shekels,” or nearly $150,000, but the committee had not received an exact list of the benefits that would be covered.
Levy called Netanyahu's new government “disconnected" from the public. “There are 800,000 people unemployed outside, and he wants a tax exemption.”
In popular Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, columnist Merav Betito wrote that Netanyahu “bought himself his permanent status as a legally certified moneygrubber.”
Israel’s coronavirus lockdown has sent unemployment soaring to roughly 25% and has caused many businesses to fail. Israel’s roughly 9 million citizens have had over 20,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and over 300 deaths. A month after restrictions were lifted, cases are again rising.
Israeli media reported that the rebates amounted to as much as 1 million shekels, or almost $300,000, and included expenses for Netanyahu's private home and official vehicle. The Israel Tax Authority didn't disclose the exact sum or the breakdown of the expenses.
Moshe Gafni, the committee chair, defended the decision on Israel Radio Wednesday. “It’s a lot of money" that the prime minister shouldn't have to cover, he said. "He rides in an armored car, so he pays tax on it? This cannot be.”
Netanyahu's Likud party issued a statement saying the prime minister wasn't asking for special treatment, adding that he pays taxes just like his predecessors.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu asked an oversight committee to allow an American real estate magnate to fund his legal defense. While the request is not illegal, the optics of Netanyahu’s request have drawn criticism.
Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes began last month after delays due to the pandemic. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends, and offering to beneficial legislation to Israeli media moguls in exchange for positive media coverage.
The long-serving prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the media and law enforcement of a witch hunt.