Some people collect stamps or butterflies, some people grow orchids, others go skydiving or surfing. What Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu like to do is stay at luxury hotels at the expense of others. It's their hobby. Less dangerous than bungee jumping, less cruel than partridge hunting, less kinky than trading partners with other couples. At worst, they harm the environment by getting too much dry cleaning done.
The investigation conducted by Channel 10's Raviv Drucker, about the various trips the Netanyahus have taken, did showcase exemplary journalism. It made me envious. Netanyahu is the sitting prime minister, his decisions determine the fate of many people, and the public is entitled to know how its leader spent his time on his way back to power - and who paid for the pleasure. Drucker removed part of the mask that keeps the king and queen from being exposed to their subjects, one receipt after another; that is the job of the press in a democratic society.
But when the program was over, the question remained: What's so bad about that? Bibi and Sara weren't trying to be ostentatious. They didn't ride around in a Hummer or buy an apartment in Tel Aviv's Akirov Towers. On the contrary, they tried to play down their hedonism and were angry when the story broke. And Netanyahu's connections with the wealthy are nothing unusual. Every politician needs funding and they all ask millionaires for handouts.
Drucker reported that film producer Arnon Milchan helped Netanyahu, but that his son donated to Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni; they were spreading the risk. Even some of the symbols of clean Israeli politics, like Meretz's Haim Oron and Zahava Gal-On, raised money for primaries from affluent individuals. The only way to run for office is to combine money and power.
The political ramifications of Drucker's story are also negligible. It's doubtful that Netanyahu will now be perceived as having committed any criminal offenses or having seriously violated the rules of ethics, or that this episode will hang over the rest of his term of office. Once every few years, reports on the stinginess of a prime ministerial couple or the exploitation of domestic workers come out.
In Israeli slang, the expression "to do a Bibi Netanyahu" describes someone who dashes from the table as soon as the waiter brings the bill. It's more a matter of popular legend than actual news. Even Likud voters know full well about how their party leader behaves. They're not going to switch over to Kadima just because some American billionaire flew Bibi and Sara over on his private jet.
Such stories of hedonism are upsetting primarily because they inspire envy. Anyone who has been to a hotel and held back from using the minibar or ordering room service - that is to say, most Israelis - hates it when others use the spa and the laundry services without having to think about the bill. Why should Sara get that privilege and not us, people want to know.
These stories are also upsetting because of the efforts that have been made to hide the spending and, later on, justify it. Instead of running the country, the prime minister is spending hours on the phone with Drucker's competitors, providing detailed explanations for his behavior. Instead of telling the public "I like to spoil myself without paying for it; now let me work," Netanyahu is portraying himself as a victim of political persecution on the part of the left-wing media and their patrons in Kadima. That is unnecessary. You enjoyed flying on private planes and staying in mansions? Great, now let others have some vicarious enjoyment.
There is another reason to be upset about this situation, and it's the most important of the three. Political leaders tend to do unusual things. The rise to power often entails some degree of megalomania and uninhibited ambition - a feeling of "I'm above everyone else, so I deserve things that you're not allowed to have." It's been like that from the days of King David, through Moshe Dayan and John F. Kennedy, up to today. But this approach can be risky. The winners are forgiven for being corrupt, chasing women or cozying up to criminals, but the losers get sent to the interrogation rooms and possibly to jail.
Netanyahu's problem isn't what he did, but what he didn't do. He did not demonstrate leadership or make any historic decisions. He is a successful diplomat who runs the economy well, is wary of exercising military force and holds the coalition together nicely. But in his desire not to take risks, the prime minister projects idleness and constant fence-sitting. Under such circumstances, when there is nothing to report in terms of his actions in leading the country, people turn to the subject of his laundry receipts. Netanyahu might not end his term on the defendant's bench, like Ehud Olmert, but he will only be remembered as the man who wasn't there, the man who wasted his time responding to Channel 10 instead of defeating Iran or making peace with the Palestinians.
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