Would You Buy an Empty Bottle From This Man?

We now have a prime minister who can no longer distinguish between his personal interests and Israel’s, someone exhibiting the megalomania of a Chavez and the paranoia of a Nixon.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, Dec. 4, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, Dec. 4, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

I have made it a point throughout Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenures not to write about his wife, Sara, because I think politicians have a right to a private life and their families should be left alone. But now I have to break this principle, because the scandal around the bottle-deposit refunds points to a serious defect in the powers of judgment of Israel’s premier.

Let me explain.

It is alleged that Sara Netanyahu has routed the refund for bottle deposits used in the prime minister’s residences into her private pocket, an allegation severe enough that the attorney general is mulling an investigation against Mrs. Netanyahu. Her husband is alleged to have been aware of the issue, as the couple has in the past returned moneys for bottle deposits to the state – only, it seems, not enough.

Given that Forbes estimates Netanyahu’s net worth at $11 million (or about 42 million shekels), one cannot help questioning the prime minister’s state of mind. Why on earth should somebody who is quite well off take the risk of being accused of a criminal offense (for that is what withholding the bottle-deposit refund seems to be), or even just a minor misdemeanor, for a few thousand shekels when you are obviously not starving? If Netanyahu indeed knew about this, his judgment has gone down the drain completely, and there are other indications for this worrying trend.

We thought Netanyahu had pulled every trick to harm Israel’s relations with the United States, but “Bibi,” it turned out, still had something in the bag. The invitation to speak before the joint session of Congress on March 3, organized by his longtime aide and confidant, and currently Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has clearly overstepped all bounds. Chemi Shalev has called it no less than a Yom Kippur War for Israeli diplomacy (in which nothing will be the same thereafter).

Reports abound that U.S. Jewry feels terrible about Netanyahu’s diplomatic Chernobyl. It smacks of Netanyahu abusing Congress for his personal election campaign, and is utterly unheard of in terms of protocol between nations. Not even the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC – which, for better or worse, has backed Netanyahu for years – feels that his decision is defensible, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already indicated that many Democrats may be “too busy” to attend Netanyahu’s speech.

The question is, what on earth is happening to Netanyahu? His psyche seems to live in a world of its own. He can no longer distinguish between his personal interests and Israel’s, and genuinely seems to believe that the prime minster’s position and residence are somehow rightfully his – a megalomania that leaders such as Ceauescu and Chavez have been guilty of. Add to this that Netanyahu, according to all reports, has walled himself off from anybody who does not accept his judgment unquestioningly, because he suffers from the almost paranoid suspicion that people undermine him – a phenomenon known from unloved leaders like former U.S. President Richard Nixon. The result is that Netanyahu lives in a parallel universe completely disconnected from Israel’s reality, and even more from its international standing.

If, God forbid, Netanyahu forms the next government, too, we’ll be stuck in a situation in which the White House will avoid any contact with Israel’s prime minister until the end of Obama’s term (January 2017).

Let me summarize. We have a prime minister who fries Israel’s relation with its most important friend – the world’s only superpower – to gain political advantage, and whose wife allegedly funnels petty amounts of state money into her pocket with his knowledge.

In 1972, National Lampoon ran an anthology of political humor entitled “Would You Buy a Used War From This Man?” about Nixon. That looks funny in retrospect, but U.S. citizens didn’t find it very funny when it turned out how the paranoid Nixon had orchestrated the Watergate break-in.

It is not funny, either, that nobody would buy an empty bottle from the man who runs Israel.

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