Could the Probe Into Sara Netanyahu Bring Down King Bibi?

As one ex-premier gets sent to prison, his successor looks on with trepidation as his wife is questioned about household expenses, and ponders a troubling vote in his party's central committee.

An illustration showing Sara Netanyahu being questioned while former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert passes by in a prison uniform.
Amos Biderman

The week in which a former Israeli prime minister was sentenced finally and irrevocably to prison is ending with the questioning under caution of the wife of the serving prime minister, on suspicion of receiving something fraudulently. Rather an unfortunate coincidence. Besides the timing, there’s no connection between the two cases. Taking bribes, for which Ehud Olmert was convicted, is the “mother” of all transgressions for public officials. Sara Netanyahu is a private person; she cannot be bribed, and of course she is innocent until proven otherwise.

If the continuing investigation in the affair of “the prime minister’s residences,” involving furniture and contractors, ends up producing an indictment against Sara Netanyahu – fateful political scenarios could ensue. The result could even be the end of the era of the fourth Netanyahu kingdom, however far-fetched that might sound. The question (premature, indeed) that engaged the political arena this week was: If Sara is implicated, who will pay the price – she or he?

According to longtime acquaintances of the Netanyahus, besides the ongoing fear of losing power that haunts them day and night, they are gripped by an even greater and more terrible concern: Of finding themselves once again in the moldy Israel Police interrogation rooms in Petah Tikva, facing experienced and proficient fraud investigators. The walls really are peeling there and the carpet really is fraying – as a celebrity interior designer tried to show was the case in the Netanyahus’ Jerusalem residence, in a video circulated during the election campaign last February.

In 1999-2000, after Netanyahu was voted out of office after one term, he and his wife were the subjects of two investigations. One involved suspicion of keeping gifts given them by foreign leaders; the other, of accepting gratuities and bribes from a mover, Avner Amedi, to the tune of 200,000 shekels (about $50,000; Olmert was sentenced this week to 18 months in jail for taking bribes of 60,000 shekels).

The case of the foreign gifts was dropped for “absence of guilt.” In the Amedi case the police recommended indictments. The attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein (now deputy president of the Supreme Court), decided to close the case due to a lack of evidence. The Netanyahus thus escaped a criminal trial by the skin of their teeth. In recent years, investigative reports and allegations have again shed a dismal light on their obsessive tendency to try to leech from public coffers, and have shown the paralysis, bordering on rigor mortis, that seizes the millionaire couple whenever they are called upon to open their private wallet or purse or sign a check. For them, a shekel saved is a shekel earned, even if the sum involved is only a few dozen shekels a month to pay for dog food. (As revealed this week by Revital Hovel on Channel 2’s “Fact” program, the Netanyahus have asked the state to pay for their dog’s food.)

The trauma of the interrogations and the fear of being put on trial largely explain what was surely the most bizarre episode in the local judicial world in 2015: the meeting earlier this month between Sara Netanyahu’s lawyer, Jacob Weinroth, and the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, in which the former tried to persuade the latter not to authorize his client’s interrogation by the police. Did Weinroth, a very experienced lawyer, really think that Weinstein – a month before the end of his term, with his eyes on the legal milieu to which he is about to return, and with his proven zero commitment to the person who appointed him – would grant him that kind of off-the-wall celeb leniency? Obviously not. But the very fact that he paid a call on Weinstein is indicative of the volume of the atmospheric pressure in the official Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. Spaceships have exploded under similar conditions.

The ‘Rivlin faction’

This week’s vote in the Likud Party Central Committee reflected the mood among the 3,600 members of the ruling party’s highest body. On the one hand, two-thirds of them voted in favor of Netanyahu’s politically astute initiative to advance the party’s leadership primary by three years. But at the same time, they signaled him that they are not deep in his pocket by electing as committee chairman Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz over Netanyahu’s (unofficial) candidate, MK Tzachi Hanegbi, the coalition whip.

The campaign against Katz was both scary and disturbing. It’s no secret that in the prime minister’s inner circle Katz, who has been branded a “leftist” because of his friendship and professional ties with Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, is considered an enemy. On top of being an independent, unpredictable politician who doesn’t care what people think, he also hooked up 18 months ago with Gideon Sa’ar – enemy No. 2 – in an initiative that ultimately helped to make Reuven Rivlin – enemy No. 3 – Israel’s president.

Netanyahu calls this trio, two of whom are outside the political arena but still wield considerable influence, the “Rivlin faction.” To prevent Katz’s election as central committee chairman, various forces banded together to claim that his victory would augur Netanyahu’s ouster in favor of Sa’ar, as if Sa’ar were even a candidate.

On Tuesday afternoon, when Likud member Sa’ar arrived at the polling station to cast his vote, a central committee member named Meir Cohen fired off an urgent text message to the rest of the committee: “Gideon Sa’ar has arrived to help Katz get elected and torpedo Netanyahu’s proposal. Friends, go and vote! We have to strengthen the prime minister!” Shades of Netanyahu’s message to his voters in the last Knesset election: “The Arabs are flocking to the polls in huge numbers.”

Vast numbers of clips reviling Katz were posted on Likud’s social networks. Internal proceedings in the party have never been known for being humdrum, but party veterans said this week that they can’t remember such a flood of filth and fulmination against one of their own. Ironically, the virulent propaganda that depicted Katz as a leftist who wants to depose Netanyahu, in favor of Sa’ar, makes Netanyahu’s defeat in the vote all the more glaring.

Likud’s Yisrael Katz (no relation), the transportation minister, was pleased at his namesake’s victory, but his joy was tempered by what was for him a distressful development. Twenty years ago, Ehud Barak said of Netanyahu, “He climbed the tree like Tarzan and came down like Popeye.” Yisrael Katz, whose ambition is to succeed Netanyahu as Likud leader and prime minister, proved this week that even if the premiership is a long way off, he is fully worthy of Barak’s quip.

Two weeks ago, before it became known that Netanyahu intended to move up the party primary, Katz, who is chairman of Likud’s secretariat, issued a media communique: “Contrary to rumors, the election for Likud leader will not be advanced and will take place as Likud’s constitution stipulates, half a year before the Knesset election.”

Three days before the vote in the central committee, however, Katz relented and announced his support for Netanyahu’s move to hold the primary early. He explained that he had reached an agreement with the premier whereby the latter agreed that any attempt to add new parties to Likud would require approval by the party’s convention. The only trouble is that this is already stipulated in the Likud constitution.

To his horror, Katz, who is usually a judicious politician, adept at reading the map, had discovered early in the week that he’d spoken too soon. He’d initially hoped to be crowned the leader of a mass movement to force Netanyahu to retract his primary proposal. But he remained the lone rebel. That left him confronting a cruel Hamlet-like dilemma: whether it would be nobler to stick to his original stance and put his strength to the test in the central committee, or to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by executing an urgent tactical retreat and fleeing the battlefield while the fleeing was good.

The veteran minister, who for the past decade has diligently created an image for himself as master of the central committee, chose not to commit political suicide. The snorts of laughter of his rivals, with Netanyahu at their head, could be heard from afar. Reality doesn’t always resemble a flattering profile on Channel 2.

A name to conjure with

The committee that elects judges for the rabbinical courts was supposed to meet this week and choose two more judges for the regional courts after electing 22 last September. The committee is headed by National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), a Netanyahu loyalist. Apparently this is not by chance. Other members are Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) and MKs Revital Swid (Labor/Zionist Union) and Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism). Numerous informal encounters were held before the meeting – which was postponed to later this month – in order to reach prior agreement on the candidates. According to one committee member, horse trading is more elegant and refined.

In one conversation, more than a month ago, the name of a new candidate came up: Rabbi Moshe Habib from the religious-Zionist movement, a judge on the beit din of the Beit El settlement. The committee members had never heard his name before. Some checked and discovered that he is the brother of Meyer Habib, a member of the French parliament and a very close friend of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu,

It turns out that the French politician and affluent businessman has been at the Netanyahus’ side for two decades. On their Paris visits, he plies them with tons of attention. A few weeks ago, when the prime minister was in France for the climate conference, Habib looked after the Lady exclusively while her husband contributed his two shekels to solving global warming.

Could it be that the Prime Minister’s Bureau and/or the Prime Minister’s Residence is/are behind Moshe Habib’s candidacy as a rabbinical court judge? Two committee members and a political figure who is well informed about the procedure (all of whom requested anonymity) heard from someone very close to the Netanyahus that this is indeed an express wish of the royal couple.

Steinitz’s bureau told me that Moshe Habib’s name had been submitted as a candidate not by the minister but by “another committee member” (male or female in the Hebrew). Steinitz himself declined to say who it was, claiming that the committee’s discussions are “classified.”

A simple check revealed that the rabbi is the candidate of Justice Minister Shaked. Her bureau denied this, however. Although his name appears next to hers on the official committee document, I was told, this is a purely technical matter, and it was Steinitz who “coupled” the candidates randomly with committee members, Shaked’s bureau said.

I then asked MK Swid, a new but energetic and perceptive MK, whether her impression is that hidden forces are working to promote Habib’s candidacy. “Rabbi Habib’s name didn’t come up at all in the previous meeting,” she confirmed. “It’s only recently that I heard of him.” She added, “His religious affiliation is of no interest to me. What’s important is that he must be moderate, worthy and committed to gender equality.”

Netanyahu vs. bottle cap

It’s been more than 40 years since Netanyahu served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier and an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. But, as they say, boys will be boys, and even when others of his age are retiring, he is still trying to preserve some of the old-time gung-ho.

During a ministerial meeting held this week in the Prime Minister’s Office, a small bottle of fizzy water was brought in at Netanyahu’s request. To his chagrin, he found he would need a bottle opener for it. One minister asked an aide to find an opener. “There’s no need,” Netanyahu muttered, “in the Sayeret we learned how to deal with situations like this.” He asked someone for a coin and tried to pry open the serrated cap. It was hard work. He kept at it, gritted his teeth, pursed his lips, but to no avail.

The meeting was suspended. The ministers watched the spectacle, fascinated. Man vs. machine, coin vs. cap. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon got up – to go and get the tea lady, everyone thought. Of course that was the farthest thing from Ya’alon’s mind. He too served in the Sayeret. A bottle opener is for jobniks, noncombat soldiers. He pulled up his perpetual blue sweater and took off his belt, which apparently had the appropriate accessory, and passed it to Netanyahu.

Just then the prime minister’s efforts paid off. The recalcitrant cap surrendered to the coin. A victory of the human spirit. The ministers uttered appreciative noises. The belt was returned to its owner, fortunately before his trousers fell down, as then the immortal comment made by Ariel Sharon about Netanyahu some 20 years ago would have been realized, in part: “The man was caught with his pants down, in more than one sense.”