Before Netanyahu's Cigars: Israeli Leaders' Hedonistic Acts Through the Ages

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Malawi President Kamuzu Banda present Israeli Prime Minister Levy Eshkol with a leopard skin at the latter's office in Jerusalem.
Malawi President Kamuzu Banda present Israeli Prime Minister Levy Eshkol with a leopard skin at the latter's office in Jerusalem. Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On May 23, 1956, the Knesset convened in order to deliberate an episode that had triggered a political, media and public furor. On the agenda was “the selling of the finance minister’s apartment.” It turned out that Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, who would go on to become Israel’s third prime minister, had sold his private residence on Benjamin Metudela Street, in Jerusalem’s affluent Rehavia neighborhood, to the ministry he headed and had made a tidy profit on the deal.

The opposition pounced on the report. MK Haim Landau (Herut, later Likud), who placed the item on the Knesset agenda, wondered how it was possible for the minister in charge to be both the seller and the buyer of his home. “Why is a minister doing business with the government he’s a member of? How can a minister cut deals with the ministry he’s in charge of?” Landau wondered. “Is this conceivable in a properly run state and an orderly society? Where did this morality come to Israel from? Is it permitted? And if it is permitted – then what else is also permitted?”

Contemporary readers, who may think of Eshkol (based on what they know from history books or even remember from their younger days) as the epitome of modesty and belt-tightening, will be hard-put to believe that he was involved in such a gambit. For the broad public, the images of Eshkol, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir – leading figures in Mapai (forerunner of today’s Labor Party), all of whom were born in the 19th century and were revered as leaders of the country’s founding generation – represented the values of integrity, modesty and sometimes even asceticism. “Things used to be different here,” many people sigh these days when hearing of the many cases of high-level corruption.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula waving farewell at Lydda Airport, before leaving on a Scandinavian tour in 1962.Credit: Moshe Pridan, GPO

Yossi Goldstein, a professor of history at Ariel University, vehemently rejects such nostalgic notions. “I don’t know of any Israeli leader who wasn’t tainted by power,” he asserts in an interview, adding, “Power is an infectious disease that affects everyone who comes into contact with it. Everyone exploits it for his purposes.”

Goldstein has spent the past 25 years writing biographies of Israeli prime ministers and other senior Zionist figures. The list so far: Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Ussishkin and Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg). He recently completed a two-volume, 1,450-page biography of Ben-Gurion, which is due to be published in Hebrew next year. 

Goldstein’s archival research turned up not only information about the leaders’ fateful decisions, but also about their private lives, weaknesses and ethically questionable behavior, which some today would label corrupt. 

“Even the very best people eventually drown in power. There are no saints or angels. Maybe somewhere else there are, though that’s far from certain, too,” Goldstein tells me, on the basis of his familiarity with the material.

'I don’t know of any Israeli leader who wasn’t tainted by power.'

Prof. Yossi Goldstein

The Eshkol case is a good example, he notes. Eshkol sold his private residence not to make a bundle but because of a serious family problem. His first wife, Elisheva, fell ill and found it difficult to climb the stairs to their third-floor apartment.

But the fact that he sold the apartment to the ministry he ran and “made a fortune on it,” according to Goldstein, gives rise to criticism despite the unfortunate circumstances. In his 2003 biography of Eshkol, Goldstein noted that the sale had been executed “contrary to every ethical procedure.” He added that the money was intended to cover the mounting costs of his wife’s treatment, but also to assist other family members.

Eshkol was also lambasted for the extensive renovations he made to the large apartment-office he received from the government on Bustanai Street in Jerusalem’s upscale Old Katamon neighborhood. “Many tens of thousands of [Israel] pounds were invested in that apartment on repair and renovation, and to plant the surrounding garden,” MK Landau complained during the discussion in the Knesset. “No one yet knows how much the treasury put into the apartment from the public coffers. Some say 40,000 pounds, some say 70,000 or even more.” 

“The extensive renovation of this official residence, which was carried out at the expense of the State of Israel, was very uncharacteristic of this modest man,” Goldstein says. However, he explains, “The only thing that interested Eshkol was his wife’s needs, period. He took no account of anyone.” 

In the biography, the historian adds another detail, not related to corruption, which sheds some light on Eshkol’s personality. Like many good and decent people back then, he conducted extramarital affairs. At the time, “along with his wish to help his wife become stronger,” Goldstein writes, Eshkol also strengthened his romantic ties with other women.

Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levy Eshkol, Deputy Defense Minister Simon Peres and David Ben-Gurion at the defense minister's office in Tel Aviv.Credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO

Eshkol, for his part, expressed regret only at the manner in which his private apartment was sold. “Not even the shadow of a doubt struck me in the course of the transaction, or was I in any doubt about the sale,” he told the Knesset. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion came to his defense, terming the episode an “aesthetic error” and assailing Eshkol’s critics. “We have to accept the fact that we live in a small country where provinciality is rampant and gossip is unavoidable,” he said.

At the same time, Ben-Gurion took the opportunity to demarcate the boundaries within which elected officials should act, according to his approach. “It’s true that what applies to a public emissary does not apply to every citizen. [A public figure] is obliged to consider his actions daily. He is obliged to examine whether everything he does is not only above-board or not – that goes without saying – but also whether his actions are liable to be seen as not being above-board by the public,” Ben-Gurion told the Knesset.

The Old Man’s books

Those who are disappointed to learn of Eshkol’s impropriety will have to cope with the fact that even Ben-Gurion, the “Old Man” in khaki who retired to a so-called “hut” at Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the Negev, took advantage of his status for personal benefit.

“Ben-Gurion ruled the Jewish community here for 39 years – as secretary general of the Histadrut [Federation of Labor], as chairman of the Jewish Agency and as prime minister of Israel,” Goldstein points out. In researching the biography, he came across some questionable acts concerning the leader’s private residence on what is today Ben-Gurion Avenue in Tel Aviv.

“I’m not sure whether he repaid more than a third of the mortgage he received for the land he purchased from the Jewish National Fund. Memos on the subject were sent to him, and he said, ‘Alright.’ But why should he have money? He was always poor,” Goldstein says.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion attends a Dutch state dinner held in his honor during his official visit in 1960.Credit: GPO

The historian also punctures the legend about the famous “hut” in Sde Boker as a symbol of a modest life with no other trappings. “The land on which the hut was built belongs to the State of Israel and was allocated to Kibbutz Sde Boker. Solel Boneh [a Histadrut-owned construction company] built the hut for him and afterward extended and renovated it, so that it eventually had four and a half rooms,” says Goldstein. 

Still, at the time, he adds, “It seemed totally crazy for him to be living in a place like that. I saw it up-close as a soldier in the Paratroops, when I did guard duty there.” However, he notes, “In retrospect, you understand that there was a major failing here. First, the government lets him live there, as though it were his private property. And then Solel Boneh builds [additional] rooms for him.”

Is it preferable that leaders receive allegedly forbidden gifts in the form of books, as compared with champagne and cigars?

Asked whether he thinks it’s possible to draw a comparison between the cigars and champagne that a serving prime minister is said to have received from a private businessman during the state’s seventh decade, and the renovation of a home in a remote kibbutz in the Negev where the country’s first prime minister lived, Goldstein resorts to the elusive concept of “values”: “The question that needs to be asked is which values are reflected by a leader’s exploitation of power,” he says. “There’s no doubt that in the past the values were more ‘correct.’”

By way of illustration, he goes back to Ben-Gurion – this time, to his large library, part of which is well preserved in Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv. Visitors to the historic site find the library riveting and are struck by its intellectual and cultural richness. “By my estimate, Ben-Gurion acquired about 7,500 books,” Goldstein says, but points out that “even though they were his private property, he paid from his pocket for [only] 10 to 20 percent of them.”

This raises an interesting ethical question. Is it preferable for the public that its leaders received allegedly forbidden gifts in the form of books, as compared with champagne and cigars? “Ben-Gurion took advantage of his status to acquire books. But that’s books. Not cigars. There’s a huge difference,” Goldstein avers. “When one of the important people in this country boasted that he hadn’t read a book for the past 10 years,” he adds, referring to current coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud), “I wanted to bury my head in shame.”  

Still, Goldstein believes that “today’s world is far better,” in terms of norms and standards, than that of the 1950s and 1960s, a period for which many people are nostalgic. 

“The public, and particularly the left wing, to which I belong, doesn’t like to hear that there was hedonism in the past, too. They think, ‘Once there was Ben-Gurion, there was Golda, and things were wonderful.’ But as a historian, I have no choice but to frustrate them,” he says, adding. “I don’t feel any nostalgia for that world. Their value system was awful. As part of it, I executed two people [enemy captives] as a paratrooper.” 

Golda Meir with Tamar Eshel at Prime Minister Rabin's residence in Jerusalem in 1976.Credit: Yaacov Saar, GPO

Golda’s room

Yossi Goldstein was born in Haifa in 1947 to “ordinary parents from the lower middle class,” in his words. He’s just celebrated his 70th birthday. He did his army service, as noted, as a paratrooper, taking part in the Six-Day War and in historic reprisal raids, including the operations in the Jordanian villages of Karameh and Samu. He served in the Yom Kippur War as a reservist.

Goldstein pursued Russian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and later received his doctorate there, writing his dissertation about the early years of the Zionist movement in Russia. Subsequently he taught at the University of Haifa and at the Open University. Ten years ago he joined the faculty of what was then the Ariel University Center of Samaria, where he’s a professor in the Israel Heritage Department.  

Recently he became involved in a polemic in the op-ed pages of Haaretz, when he responded to a piece by Uri Misgav, a columnist for the paper, who called on left-wingers such as Goldstein (though he didn’t mention anyone by name) to resign from Ariel University, which is situated in the West Bank. 

“I support the establishment of a Palestinian state. If we return Ariel, the university will be able to move to Rosh Ha’ayin [within the Green Line],” Goldstein told me.  

Historical documents that have cropped up in recent years illuminate the modesty of past Israeli leaders, and flood readers with a false sense of nostalgia.

One of his popular courses deals with leadership during Israel’s first years. He also gives courses in “The Beginnings of the State of Israel” and in “Zionism and Post-Zionism.” He’s currently supervising a large number of doctoral students. Goldstein has written more than 50 books, including 12 biographies, research studies and textbooks, and has published more than 100 articles in important academic journals. 

It was Goldstein who suggested the interview to Haaretz in the wake of an article I published in the paper, titled “On the not so golden days, when Israeli leaders declared every shekel” (August 16). The article cited a series of historical documents that have cropped up on Facebook in recent years and in some cases have gone viral. All of them illuminate the modesty and courtesy of past Israeli leaders and flood readers with a false sense of nostalgia for “Israel as it was.”

One such document is a letter sent in 1965 by Eshkol’s bureau, when he was serving as prime minister, to a Bank Leumi branch in Jerusalem, requesting to return to the bank $50, which his second wife, Miriam, received from an unknown donor. “We do not customarily accept money without knowing the purpose for which it is given,” an Eshkol aide wrote to the bank.

A letter in a similar vein contains a 1969 request by Yigal Allon, the education minister at the time, not to waste public funds on furnishing his apartment. “I was informed today that the proposed budget for furnishing and equipping the official residence in the Old City intended for me exceeds a sum that I deem reasonable,” he wrote the Finance Ministry. 

Golda Meir, in her capacity as foreign minister, once sent a letter – which was published decades after her death – to the customs authorities in Jerusalem. Meir had brought back a record player from a trip to London and wanted to know the amount of the customs levy she should pay, as the record player was transported to her house with her personal effects “without being checked by a customs officer,” her secretary wrote.

Prime Minister Golda Meir and Marc Chagall attend the unveiling of his Gobelins at the Knesset building in Jerusalem in 1969.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

Prof. Goldstein is familiar with these documents, but suggests that they be taken with a grain of salt. “It’s all true and interesting,” he says, “but the problem is that it’s the half-full cup. You could write the opposite article about every prime minister, from Ben-Gurion, Eshkol and Golda until the latest of them. All of them, but all of them, made no effort to free themselves from wielding authority, in one form or another, and exploited it. They all did wrong,” he says.

In his research he also documented Golda Meir’s perks of power: “Golda was the most modest leader I can conceive of. All you have to do is look at her clothes and shoes. And she always rented out a room in her house, so she would have a bit more money to give the children.”

However, Goldstein notes, between 1956 and 1966, when she was Israel’s foreign minister, she stayed at one of the world’s most expensive hotels – the Waldorf Astoria – during her visits to New York. “That seems to be alright, because they had the security means she needed, and because she received a very large discount as a popular personage,” he says.

At the same time, while researching his biography of Meir, Goldstein discovered that her younger sister, Clara, who lived in Connecticut, also used to stay at the hotel at the Foreign Ministry’s expense, when Golda was in town. “You ask me why? Because power gave her the possibility. It’s not because Golda wasn’t modest. After all, every Saturday evening the cabinet ministers would go to her house and were served delicacies that she cooked with her own hands, after personally buying the ingredients in the grocery store,” the historian explains.

Even Yitzhak Rabin, the shy sabra from the Palmach, the pre-state elite strike force, and an icon of his generation, gets a rough ride at Goldstein’s hands. Referring to his 2006 biography of Rabin, which ran to 600 pages, he says, “I could have filled another 500 and told about his hedonism, in which he really outdid himself during his period in the United States.” Rabin, Goldstein asserts, “was an outstanding example of a leader who used power for his own benefit.” 

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during his appearance at the National Press Club in Washington in 1976.Credit: Yaacov Saar, GPO
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin plays tennis, 1976.Credit: Yaacov Saar, GPO

In 1968, following his retirement from the Israel Defense Forces after 27 years, Rabin was appointed to his first civilian position: ambassador to the United States. He served in that capacity until 1973. 

“Rabin was much in demand as a speaker,” Goldstein says. “He was courted by many institutions and organizations and spoke at all kinds of events, in synagogues, at bar mitzvahs and weddings. He received huge payments and pocketed them. That was permitted at the time, but the moral aspect enters here. After all, before that he had been the modest redhead from the Palmach.” 

In 1974, when elected prime minister for the first time, Rabin enjoyed the image of a person of integrity, who “was meticulous in regard to the rule of law being observed in the country and promised, on his first day in office, to uproot every manifestation of corruption,” Goldstein writes in his book. This was a period when the ruling party suffered a number of blows to its image, following a series of entanglements with the law by high-ranking figures who were close to the government. 

Michael Tzur, a businessman, former director general of the Commerce and Industry Ministry and a protégé of Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, was given a 15-year prison term for theft, fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Asher Yadlin, head of the Histadrut’s Clalit health maintenance organization, and Housing Minister Avraham Ofer were accused of theft, fraud and bribery. Yadlin was convicted and sentenced to a prison term; Ofer committed suicide in the course of the investigation against him. 

What finally brought Rabin down in his first term, however, was not the fact that he took payment for the speeches he gave, but the fact that the money sat in a foreign bank account that he continued to hold after returning to Israel from the United States. At the time, it was illegal to hold funds outside the country. Dan Margalit, a Haaretz correspondent at the time, broke the story, which quickly ballooned into an epic scandal and a dramatic political crisis that culminated in Rabin’s resignation as prime minister. According to Goldstein’s biography, Rabin and his wife, Leah, used the $60,000 from that same foreign account to buy a rooftop apartment in the upscale Ramat Aviv section of Tel Aviv.

At present, Goldstein is at work on a biography of the late Shimon Peres. Once more, it’s very likely that stories of the kind that leaders like to conceal will crop up. 

“Peres was a classic hedonist, who stayed in the most luxurious hotels, and there wasn’t a week in which he didn’t dine in the finest restaurants," says Goldstein. "In comparison, Bibi is small-time when it comes to the exploitation of power."

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