Netanyahu Is Cheap, Petty, Paranoid - but Coated in Teflon

In a country with a normal spine, the prime minister's recurrent scandals would have dealt his career a mortal blow. In Israel, they just boost his polls.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of Likud's election campaign, January 5, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of Likud's election campaign, January 5, 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

Attorney Jacob Weinroth, who has represented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in previous imbroglios, was once asked by a colleague if he thought Netanyahu was corrupt. “No,” Weinroth responded unequivocally. “Netanyahu wouldn’t take a bribe. He’s incapable of ever giving anything to anyone.”

There’s something to this analysis. Netanyahu is ultimately a petty person who engages in petty behavior. And that’s how he appears in the state comptroller’s report on spending at the prime minister’s residences.

You’d never catch former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (whose Sycamore Ranch was given millions of dollars, allegedly by businessman Martin Schlaff) or his successor Ehud Olmert (who was convicted last year of taking bribes in the Holyland case) trying to bill the state treasury for the hallucinatory amount of over 8,000 shekels a month ($2,070) for janitorial services at the Netanyahu family’s private home in Caesarea, where they reside at most only on weekends. You’d never catch Netanyahu’s predecessor sending his subordinates to do his personal shopping without reimbursing them. No previous prime ministers would have billed tens of thousands of shekels a month for restaurant meals and other food, nor would they have signed a dubious contract with an electrician who was a family friend, under which the state paid mind-boggling sums for services that remain unclear.

Only Netanyahu could embarrass himself and his office for a few thousand shekels. It’s a deep-rooted character flaw that’s stronger than he is.

For 20 years now, embarrassing stories have repeatedly surfaced about the difficulty Netanyahu and his wife have with paying anything out of their own pockets, and their consequent habit of billing the state for private expenditures.

When Netanyahu was leader of the opposition, many Jerusalem restaurateurs became familiar with his habit of walking out after a meal without paying. During his first term as prime minister (1996-99), he sought to buy cigars at the taxpayer’s expense. At the end of that term came the scandal over a contractor who provided the Netanyahus with hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of services that they charged to the state. They were also suspected of having kept hundreds of gifts they received in their official roles.

“You’re leftists,” Netanyahu accused the policemen who investigated that case, pointing an accusing finger at a picture of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the wall. He hasn’t changed since. He remains the eternal victim of an imaginary elite that wants to destroy him.

In a country with a normal spine, these recurrent scandals would have dealt Netanyahu’s career a mortal blow. Sweden’s culture minister, Cecilia Stego Chilo, resigned when it emerged that she hadn’t paid her television license fee in years. Other countries where the phrase “it’s just not done” is part of the national mentality have also packed off politicians who act like the Netanyahus.

But Israel isn’t Sweden or Britain. In Israel, stories like this serve primarily as fodder for a campaign about imaginary persecution that will bring in additional votes.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira had to be forced to publish his report before next month’s election, and though the report itself isn’t bad, he tried to soften its harsh findings by irrelevancies such as descriptions of the rundown state of the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. Moreover, though he concluded that Sara Netanyahu’s actions were potentially criminal, he hastened to pass this decision onto Netanyahu’s chief flak jacket in recent years, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

Weinstein is well acquainted with the Netanyahus’ caprices. He was one of the prime minister’s defense attorneys in the 1990s, and three years ago Sara Netanyahu requested a personal meeting so she could tell him he should fire his secretaries. He understands that the Netanyahus’ behavior belongs more in the realm of psychology than criminology.

Weinstein has instructed State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan to review both the comptroller’s report and a civil suit filed by the former manager of the prime minister’s residence, Meni Naftali, and decide whether criminal investigations are warranted. But it’s doubtful any such inquiry will be opened.

“Nobody here is falling off their chairs,” a Justice Ministry source said of the attitude toward Naftali’s story. “There’s no earthquake here, and the chances of a criminal investigation are very low.”

And even if the case of the bottle deposits or the electrician theoretically raises suspicions of criminality, an investigation still seems unlikely. In Israel, it takes at least a secret stash of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to oust a sitting prime minister.

The most visible elements of the Netanyahus’ story revolve around man’s inability to rid himself of his own pathologies. But the deeper, and more worrying, story is about the prime minister’s ties with the people he has chosen as his legal gatekeepers.

Weinstein dragged his feet on the so-called Bibi Tours case – which involved overseas trips by Netanyahu and his wife funded by tycoons and nonprofit organizations – until its sting had been drawn. He then decided against a criminal investigation, but declined to publish a report that would let the public know what really happened.

“He gave [Netanyahu’s] attorney, David Shimron, more rope and more extensions until the case expired,” said a person well acquainted with Weinstein’s handling of Bibi Tours. Justice Ministry officials know that Weinstein is very protective of Netanyahu.

Shapira is scorned by his underlings, who view him as far too eager to please the Netanyahus. “Yossi the parrot” and “the state flatterer” are just two of their nicknames for him.

But when the heads of the law enforcement agencies are viewed by their subordinates as having opted to serve the government rather than supervise it, it’s like firing a dumdum bullet: All the vital organs are damaged.

The comptroller’s report reveals another gatekeeper who apparently isn’t doing her job: Shlomit Barnea Farago, legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office. It relates that a committee she chaired initially decided that the Netanyahus should pay the drought tax on their Caesarea home out of their own pockets, but then reversed itself at his insistence. Barnea Farago has been in this job for 12 years. In a country where the chief of staff and the police commissioner are replaced every four years and the attorney general and state prosecutor every six, it seems high time for her to go as well.

Weinstein’s term ends in less than a year. The coming months are thus his last opportunity to make his mark, perhaps by deciding several pending corruption cases. Shapira’s term already seems like a lost cause; he will likely be remembered as the weakest state comptroller in Israel’s history. Nor are Nitzan and Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino likely to be remembered as important figures.

But if the next government, and its successors, also choose legal gatekeepers who want the job mainly to have their pictures on the walls, with no desire to take risks or try to shake up our degenerating situation, we will witness the final collapse of Israel’s systems for monitoring those in power.

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