When wheelchair bound ‘Ironside’ star Raymond Burr walked confidently down the aircraft steps at Lod Airport in 1974, the reaction of the Israeli public was something akin to the second coming. Still caught in the long shadow of the Yom Kippur War, Israelis were far closer to Tom Brokaw’s ‘Greatest Generation’ than consumerist 1970s Western Society. But, that didn’t stop them going bananas over an American TV personality.
Nearly half a century later, Israelis have taken their dubious place in western culture, and they can now fawn and slobber over their own lesser stars. Bar Refaeli – whose completely unearned claim to fame emanates from a combination of heaven-endowed gifts and an unearthly attachment to silicone – has the nation goggle-eyed over her tax affairs. Based on tabloid rumors, she appears to be in a civil disagreement with the Income Tax Authority over whether she was justified in claiming not to be resident in either Israel or the United States while she shacked up with an Italian-American actor, and in a criminal disagreement over whether she – and her parents – hid critical facts from that same, august authority.
More worryingly, the tax authorities themselves seem to have jumped on the media bandwagon with the announcement last week that a committee has been set up to review the criteria for tax residence with a view to establishing greater certainty. Oh dear.
Starting with the last major tax reform in 2003, Israel has moved forward steadily with the removal of ambiguity about Israel tax residency in domestic law. There was a useful addition to the law in 2007, a requirement to report the basis for an aggressive non-residence position from 2016, and several landmark court cases in recent years. Furthermore, Israel now has double taxation treaties with substantially all the countries Israelis are likely to clear off to (Australia is taking up the rear), which take precedence over domestic law where there is a dispute.
What appears to have put up the Tax Authority’s blood pressure in the Refaeli case (and, in fairness, those of a few other mega-rich individuals) is the claim not to be resident anywhere. That was ably dealt with in a court case back in 2016 concerning a poker player, when the judge made clear that such cases would be rare in the extreme (he even quoted the classic case of a person living on a yacht in the middle of the ocean).
The problem, if there is one, does not arise from Israel’s lack of certainty in defining residence. In fact, Israel – in broadly paralleling the OECD Model Treaty guidelines – has a very healthy approach, combining qualitative tests (a person’s center of life), and secondary quantitive tests (number of days present). The problem is that the United States, going it alone as always, relies – at the first level – on a purely quantitative approach. So, in theory at least, an individual like Ms Refaeli could make sure they did not hit the quantitative test in either country, while claiming ‘center of life’ in the United States, where they don’t really care. Hey presto! Not resident anywhere. Any effort to achieve more certainty – like in the United States pure quantitive approach – is probably doomed to abject failure.
In cases like Ms Refaeli’s, it is surely far safer to have an Israeli judge look qualitatively at the situation in the light of the facts, and then – as Her Ladyship dons her black cap – stare the defendant coolly in the eye while pronouncing sentence.