Analysis

Israel's Busiest Person Still Finds Time for This Surprising Task

A text message misfired by a Netanyahu aide offers an unsettling revelation about the Israeli prime minister's priorities

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu attend a reception for Prince William at the home of the British ambassador in  Ramat Gan, Israel.
Ofer Vaknin

Former Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz is without a doubt the informant of the summer. Reports by Israel Television News Company’s Guy Peleg this week revealed the ability of this media adviser-turned-state’s-evidence to extract nauseating confessions from the gatekeepers of the Prime Minister’s Office about the imperial family’s habit of syphoning off public coffers.

Peleg’s reporting offered just a sampling, a tiny morsel of the treasure trove of information that Hefetz has provided investigators in exchange for the agreement of immunity they signed with him. The appetizer we received this week explains why sparing him a trial of his own and turning him into a witness for the state was so essential to the investigation. Anyone who may have had a beef with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit for giving Hefetz what looked like the deal of the century – total immunity from prosecution, no jail time and no fine – now knows what was behind that decision. And that’s even before we have had the opportunity to hear the truly devastating recordings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara and their son Yair, and the other suspects in the various corruption cases still under investigation.

Last Friday, a day after the announcement that the attorney general had decided to indict Sara Netanyahu for alleged financial improprieties at the Prime Minister’s Residence, the premier himself responded on his Facebook page. He griped about how this was “the first time that a leader’s wife has been indicted over food and take-out meals.” But that response totally distorted the substance of the allegations leveled against his wife – a distortion that has become a habit for Netanyahu, his spokesmen, his court journalists and the lawyers representing Sara. The allegations involve ongoing, aggravated, systematic fraud that cost the state 360,000 shekels (about $96,000).

The take-out trays – that brilliant PR twist, conjuring up associations of greasy Thai food arriving lukewarm at a college dorm – were actually opulent meals costing thousands of shekels, which were ordered in from fancy restaurants for invited guests and for the private enjoyment of the prime ministerial family. And these delicacies were purchased in knowing violation of rules that barred ordering food from outside if the official residence had a cook on duty.

To these we can add the horror tales of both the legal advisor of the Prime Minister’s Office, Shlomit Barnea Fargo, and its accountant, Yossi Strauss, about the daily pestering they had to endure: requests to cover every cost incurred by the king, queen and princes – even the monthly, 10-shekel subscription fee for the Big Brother Channel.

In his post, the prime minister argued that there was no clear-cut regulation prohibiting the practice, “as is exactly the case at the President’s Residence” – and even if there were, it wasn’t legal, because the Knesset Finance Committee had not approved the rule. (On its face, the claim is baseless: If everything was aboveboard and proper, why did Netanyahu’s wife, a fan of fine European cuisine, go to such great lengths to conceal and cover up her deeds?)

It’s also worth noting the reference to the President’s Residence, which Netanyahu and his spokesmen like to bring up from time to time to create the impression that the two official dwellings are run in a similar manner. This week I sought to find out how Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama, who have lived in the President’s Residence for four years, deal with meals, whether their own private ones or those held in an official capacity. I asked how many times a meal has been ordered from the outside and for what purpose, during those four years.

Staff at the residence responded that on average, this has happened once a year: There have been four or five official events – in honor of the former United Nations secretary general, or on the occasion of a visit by the Italian president or New Zealand’s governor-general, for example – and they were all prepared by veteran Jerusalem chef Shalom Kadosh. (This doesn’t include large-scale banquets for heads of state to which 100 or so people are invited, and which are catered from outside at the expense of the Foreign Ministry). Other than that, there has been nothing, and there will be nothing, in the three years remaining in Rivlin’s term in office.

The Rivlin family eats whatever the in-house chef is making – as do the guests whom the president invites rather frequently to lunch, in the dining room of the residential wing in his home. They include friends, cabinet ministers, Knesset members, journalists, judges, army and security service personnel, senior government staffers, diplomats and relatives.

The menu on offer is basic; chicken, fish, meat, salad, soup, a light dessert, wine, soft drinks, and coffee or tea. Everything is prepared on the premises. It has apparently never occurred to anyone at the President’s Residence to call out even for pizza and to falsify the records so as to make it seem as if was intended for special guests, so as to charge the state for the expenses. This is something the public should know, the next time the prime minister makes a purportedly offhand remark linking the modest and almost ascetic President’s Residence to the revelry and gourmet meals and champagne and cigars at the official residence on Balfour Street.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu board a flight to Tel Aviv from London, June 2018.
חיים צח / לע"מ

The PM proposes

And while we’re dealing with the topic of responses, Sara Netanyahu is one of the era’s great producers of them. Nowadays, sources “close to Netanyahu” can dispatch one, two or three statements a day to the media on the subject of The Lady.

Some statements are carbon copies of earlier ones. Some sneak in a new, original component. Most of them are emotional, excoriating, spitting with condemnation, making use of terms such as “pack of lies” or “hallucinatory.”

If you asked any consumer of the news who they think composes the statements pertaining to Sara’s cases, they would likely assume that they are the work of a spokesman, an adviser or perhaps a new media staff. You may be surprised. That’s not a given.

About a year and a half ago, this column reported a story about a 4,500 shekel ($1,250) gift certificate from a jewelry store that Sara Netanyahu’s friends gave her for her birthday. She came to the store to cash in the certificate, and in the meantime “increased” the purchase by another 3,000 shekels. A request to cover the additional amount was sent to the stunned friends. They couldn’t say no, so they gritted their teeth and laid out the difference.

As is the practice, I asked the Netanyahu family’s media adviser at the time, Nir Hefetz, for a comment. Two hours later, he sent the following WhatsApp text message: “Your husband suggested the following response: ‘It is not our intention to cooperate with your campaign of false and biased smears against the prime minister and his family even when the things that you claim never took place.”

Hefetz had gotten mixed up. Instead of sending the proposed text to the prime minister’s wife, he sent it to this columnist. The little blunder reveals a surprising aspect of the prime minister’s routine. It turns out that the busiest person in the country has another job. Between security cabinet and government meetings, ministerial committee meetings and visits by foreign leaders, and consultations on economic, security and political policy, Netanyahu is also occasionally called upon to draft responses to the press on the matter of his wife. He and not someone of lower station.

That takes up precious time that he doesn’t have. He has to receive and consider the query, probably call Sara to find out the who, what and why of the matter, and then sit down the compose the response. The draft is then sent to the adviser, who forwards it to Sara as a “suggestion.” She then reviews and approves it – or not.

At times like this, when not a day goes by without media reports about expenses incurred at the Prime Minister’s Residence or about Nir Hefetz’s recordings, the thought that His Excellency is himself preparing press responses, even a fraction of them, is unsettling. And knowing the cast of characters, it can be surmised that everything else on the prime minister’s desk – from Syria and Hamas to the Trump peace plan and legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox men – is shunted aside the moment that Sara calls.

Illustration: Yair Lapid as Icarus falling from the sky after flying too close to the sun.
Amos Biderman

Kosher dumpling

There’s a fairly broad consensus that nothing could be more convenient or congenial for the Haredim than the new version of the bill for drafting them, which the Defense Ministry submitted to the government earlier this month. The panel of professionals that operated under the aegis of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stretched flexibility to the max – or at least to the point where the legal advisers involved calculated that the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff was still likely to adopt the plan (which he did) and the High Court of Justice would not overturn it (still to be determined).

The goals and the quotas relating to the induction of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are reduced in the new plan, and the criminal sanctions originally proposed have been replaced with financial penalties (and even those are not personal, but will apply to the yeshivas and don’t involve large sums).

This kosher dumpling, whose many advantages were appreciated by Shas and the Haredi Degel Hatorah party, but which the rabbis of Agudat Israel are treating as treyf (unkosher), for some reason, was supposed to provide a tailwind for MK Yair Lapid – an opportunity for the Yesh Atid leader to rise from the ashes, and restore to himself a modicum of the relevance that he’s long since lost.

But Lapid decided to give up. Like a player on a losing soccer team who finds himself in front of an empty net with the ball, but instead of kicking it in hangs around until the goalie returns from the bathroom. A minute after publication of the text of the new bill, Lapid tweeted that it represents a return to the original Yesh Atid law, passed in 2014, and annulled by the present Netanyahu government. All the principles of the plan “are taken from the legislation we passed in the previous Knesset,” he declared.

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), who even on a bad day exudes more integrity than his leader, had trouble accepting the naked lie. In a press release, he explained the vast differences between the dearly departed Yesh Atid legislation – dubbed “sharing the burden equally” – and Lieberman’s plan. Shelah tried not to shame anyone in public, but his message was clear: The similarities between the two are few and far between.

Politically, Lapid’s stance is no less difficult to fathom than the fierce opposition of Agudat Israel’s Council of Torah Sages to the proposed legislation. If there’s still one issue on which Lapid can set himself apart from Netanyahu, effectively and with a semblance of credibility, it is the question of army service for the Haredim. In principle, it’s a potential electoral gold mine for him.

Lapid should have roundly attacked the Defense Ministry’s bill. If it is enacted into law next month, with Lapid leading the opposition to it – his constituency will certainly be pleased. And if the draft-law saga ends with the dismantling of the coalition and an early election, that’s even better for Lapid. He would be able to claim that revoking “his” law early on during this government’s tenure was a mistake, and the proof is that there is indeed no other solution. Either way, his voice would be heard, loud and clear, on a key strategic issue with which he’s been identified since he embarked on a political career. He would have nothing to lose, if he comported himself correctly.

Next week, the government will submit the bill to the Knesset plenum for its first reading. Both ultra-Orthodox factions are expected to vote against. It’s possible that the bill’s fate will rest in the hands of Yesh Atid. Theoretically, its defeat should be a major blow to the coalition. But, as noted, Yesh Atid’s chairman has already announced that his delegation will be voting in favor, since the bill is basically the same as the one from four years ago, etc., etc. Now, Lapid has to live with his tweet. If he makes a U-turn, he’ll become a joke. If he keeps his word, he will be derelict in his duty as an opposition member to work to bring down the government whenever he can, however he can.

Swaggering rookie

Two public opinion polls were published this week, by the Walla and Hadashot websites. Both bode ill for Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid. The national stasis continues. The situation along the Gaza border is bad, the fires continue to spread, rockets are being launched at Israel at an increasing rate, the investigations of Netanyahu have returned to the headlines, the sense of euphoria that washed over the public in May has dissipated, Likud has lost two or three seats’ worth of support in the polls -- and Yesh Atid is still stuck.

If an election were held today, the party would get 17 or 18 seats, as compared to the 24-25 it was polling less than half a year ago. At that time, Yesh Atid and Likud were running neck and neck in the polls, with Lapid being a real contender for prime minister. Indeed, he rushed to announce that in the next election, he planned to run for the top post against Netanyahu. The rude awakening was fast in coming.

MK Yair Lapid speaking to the press.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

His strategy after the last election, in 2015, when Yesh Atid won 11 seats (down from 19 in the previous Knesset) and landed in the opposition, was based on two tenets: 1. To keep his distance from all the subjects that had helped him win success in 2013 – the cost of housing, the cost of living and other socioeconomic issues,– because of his failure during his short stint as finance minister; and, 2. To seize ownership of foreign policy (as in: “There’s no foreign minister, so I’m foreign minister, for the sake of the country”).

If Hillary Clinton had been elected U.S. president, Lapid might be in a completely different situation today. But America let him down. With Donald Trump in the White House, Lapid’s main arguments collapsed. Israel is no longer a pariah state. His attempt to be seen by the goyim as the savior of his people failed.

In the musical chairs of Israeli politics, Lapid is left without a seat: The economic-social ticket belongs to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), and also, lately, MK Orli Levi-Abekasis; ownership of the diplomatic-security sphere is undeniably in the grip of Netanyahu, with a few crumbs left over for Defense Minister Lieberman. Lapid has no agenda, he has no identity.

He also has not succeeded in realizing his intention to gnaw away at the soft flesh of Likud, in the knowledge that without a few right-wing seats crossing the lines, he doesn’t stand a chance of forming the next coalition. To that end, he has been calling Yesh Atid a “center-right” party and claiming that in the security realm he is “further right than Netanyahu,” without offering to himself or others a fair reckoning with the disturbing and problematic significance of such populist rhetoric. Meanwhile, the latest polls show that Yesh Atid voters are actually moving to Likud.

The analysis isn’t complicated. Yesh Atid has recently lost seven or eight seats’ worth of support from its peak in the polls. Of those, 1.5 seats went to Levi-Abekasis; one, perhaps, to Zionist Union, which is generally not getting stronger; and one went to Kulanu. Where did the other three go? Certainly not to Lieberman or Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). Maybe one went to MK Tamar Zandberg’s new Meretz. Conclusion: Two Yesh Atid seats have gone to Likud. And that’s dramatic.

This week, Lapid was in the United States on what he declared with characteristic pomposity to be a “diplomatic trip” that was nothing but a collection of routine meetings with senators and congressmen. The heads of every important Israeli political party conducts the same ritual from time to time without puffing out their chest about it.

Lapid, for whom the most important thing is the wrapping and the headlines, has found a gimmick: He will push the American administration to formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Because he is a patriot and he cares. The folks in Washington looked down their noses at the swaggering rookie.

“Tell me, who does this guy think he is,” griped one American government official to his Israeli friend, a senior politician, this week. “You got Jerusalem [i.e., recognition of its status as Israel’s capital]. You got [America’s withdrawal from] the Iran agreement. Now we have to give you the Golan, too?”

It would be interesting to know whether someone tried to tell Lapid this to his face. In any event, the conversations he had this week on Capitol Hill had about as much influence on U.S. foreign policy as the conversation in Tel Aviv between singer Netta Barzilai and Prince William had on decision making at 10 Downing Street. With one difference: At least the encounter on Rothschild Boulevard was covered by the media.