May 24, 2016 / 2:41 PM / a year ago

Israeli watchdog criticises Netanyahu over free air tickets decade ago

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the summer session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, May 23, 2016.Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under criticism in an Israeli state audit on Tuesday over free air tickets that he and his family received for travel abroad when he was finance minister more than a decade ago.

Netanyahu, through his lawyers, has denied any wrongdoing, and it was not immediately clear whether Israel's attorney-general, who is also examining the issue, would launch any criminal investigation.

The findings by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, detailing air and hotel payments made by "foreign entities", most prominently the U.S.-based Israel Bonds, marked the latest chapter in what Israeli media have dubbed the "Bibi Tours" affair.

Netanyahu's attorneys said the travel involved appearances at fund-raising events for Israel in which - as the comptroller's report noted - host organisations abroad would pay for their guests' expenses.

"The trips by Netanyahu and his family that were funded by external sources when he was finance minister deviated from the rules, and could give the impression of receiving a gift or of a conflict of interest," the report said.

Netanyahu, like other ministers at the time, Shapira found, had not provided full details of funding for their trips to a government committee, which the report said gave "rubber stamp approval" of their travel on official business.

On many of his trips, Netanyahu - who was finance minister from 2003 to 2005 and is now in his fourth term as prime minister - was accompanied by his wife Sara, and the couple, at times, also took along their two sons.

In 2014, then-Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein closed an initial probe of Netanyahu's foreign travel, saying available evidence provided no grounds for a criminal investigation.

But in his report, Shapira said new material has since been presented to Weinstein's successor, Avichai Mandelblit, at the new attorney-general's request.

Suspicions of criminal activity have focused on whether there were instances when organisations were double-billed for Netanyahu's travel and expenses.

David Shimron, a lawyer for the Netanyahu family, said "there was no double-billing", and that the Israeli leader had "raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel Bonds", which underwrites securities issued by the State of Israel.

"During the relevant period, he behaved like everyone else - the report says - when it came to getting permission and approvals," Shimron told Israel's Army Radio." "So if he's not okay, no one is okay."

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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