When Donald and Melania dropped by the home of the Prime Minister of Israel for dinner during their visit to Israel, proud parents Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu not only made a point of introducing the visiting presidential couple to their eldest son Yair, they made certain the moment was immortalized with a photograph at the dinner table of their son alongside the First Couple.
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Over the past 24 hours, however, their son has been anything but a source of pride, starring in a salacious and damaging scandal painful even for a political family that has weathered many a storm. Since Monday night, when the countrys most viewed news show broadcast an audio recording of the younger Netanyahus night on the town during summer 2015, Israeli political circles have been buzzing with talk of little else.
Who was recorded on the tape?
The conversations were recorded in a car being used by the Prime Ministers son Yair, 24 at the time. Then, as now, Netanyahu lived at home with his parents, not uncommon for Israelis into their mid-20s, since they are only discharged from army service at age 22 or 23 and then enroll as university students, as Netanyahu was when the tape was made. What isnt common - even for the child of the prime minister of Israel living at home - is to have a government car with a driver at ones disposal, together with a bodyguard accompanying Yair Netanyahu and his brother Avner at all times. In this instance, Yair was using his government-funded transportation to spend a Friday night on the town in Tel Aviv, drunkenly ping-ponging between strip clubs. Accompanying him in the car were two friends - Roman Abramov and the son of Israeli businessman and gas tycoon Kobi Maimon. The elder Maimon is a shareholder in Isramco, which owns Israel's offshore Tamar gas fields.
What did they say?
The portion of the tape broadcast by the Israeli news channel only supplied a partial record of the antics in the car - the news station said that there were parts of the tape that it had held back. But what it released was shocking, even in the context of being the drunken banter of three privileged young men. The recording begins with a discussion and argument regarding the amount of cash spent at the strip club by Maimon, the number of lap dances each of the three men had enjoyed and who paid for what, along with a discussion of whether one of the strippers planned to leave the club and join them in the car or not. In reference to the money he owed to his friends, Netanyahu said it was for the whore - presumably in reference to one of the strippers. Maimon said that he wanted the stripper as recompense for the money he had fronted his friend. Netanyahu then joked that in order to pay off his debt he would fix up Maimon with his own girlfriend and added that he would have to start loaning her out to everyone to pay his debts. Maimon shot back Netanyahu couldnt even get his girlfriend to sleep with him and insisted, I want that stripper – that will settle my debt.
In the middle of the exchange, the phone rings - it was Sara Netanyahu and Yair exclaims, Its my mother on the phone? My mom is calling, how embarrassing, my mom, wow how embarrassing that shes calling.
Talk then shifts back to money, with Netanyahu and Abramov arguing that their companion shouldnt be holding back on them financially since Netanyahu fought for a gas deal that benefited Maimons father. Maimon was getting richer and so he owes them, Netanyahu contended.
My dad got a great deal for your dad, Netanyahu told him. Bro, you have to be nice to me. Bro, my dad got your dad a sweet deal, he fought for it at the Knesset, bro.
Maimon, he said, shouldnt be crying over 400 shekels since my father arranged 20 billion dollars for your father.
At several junctures, the participants in the exchange demonstrated degree of awareness as to how their behavior made them look. At one point, a member of the group of friends refers to the bodyguard on duty and says, If he quits, bro, we'll to murder him ... When you quit, be careful because youll die, too bad for the kids. At another point, Abramov, mock-worried, said, I dont want this conversation getting out, God help us. God, if this gets out
Ultimately, Maimon decides to leave the group saying he wanted to go to sleep. Netanyahu isnt tired and asks his friend, If were already talking hookers, whats open at this hour? Maimon suggests a local restaurant and Netanyahu asks if he thinks the waitress will play along.
Why is the tape so scandalous? Why are Israelis most outraged about?
First, theres the obvious damage caused by the degrading discussion of women and sex and the visit to the strip clubs in and of itself. The way Yair Netanyahu behaves and speaks on the tape hardly keeps with the family values image his parents have worked so hard to cultivate over the years. In the public eye since childhood, the younger Netanyahu has been part of the traditional wholesome tableau that the Prime Minister's family has presented to the public, with an emphasis on spending the Jewish Sabbath on family nature hikes, meals, and Bible study with their father. Spending Friday nights club-hopping and thousands of dollars carousing with strippers was not part of that carefully-honed image, damaging Netanyahus popularity with the religious supporters. He has, over the years, maintained support from religious conservatives and Christian evangelicals abroad despite the fact that that he has been married three times and has admitted publicly to at least one episode of infidelity.
Who is Yair Netanyahu anyway?
Overnight, it seems the eldest Netanyahu son has overtaken his mother, Sara Netanyahu, as the most embarrassing family member, with a golden boy image that has fallen apart more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.
Just a year ago, Yair Netanyahu was enjoying the image of a crown prince, with his father handing him a portion of the credit for his political successes, partiuclarly with social media efforts, thanks to his experience in the IDF spokespersons unit.
Yairs power has surged since the last election, a senior Likud figure told Haaretz last December. Sara talks about him as though hes the next prime minister.
Yair was also credited - or blamed - depending on political perspective, for changing his fathers mind on a controversial issue. After the Prime Minister publicly denounced the controversial shooting of an unarmed terrorist lying on the group by soldier Elor Azaria, Yair Netanyahu reportedly convinced his father it had been a political mistake to issue the condemnation and successfully shifted his fathers position rightward, prompting the leader to sympathetically telephone Azarias parents.
But subsequently, Yairs image was tarnished repeatedly, following virulent rightist controversial social media posts, including an anti-Semitic meme and a bizarre public run-in over his dogs excrement. His lifestyle played a role in the criminal investigations against the prime minister, when his friendship with Australian billionaire James Packer took on the appearance of possible bribery after Packer paid for the prime ministers son to stay in a luxury hotel in New York during the UN General Assembly and allowed him to stay in his suite in a Tel Aviv hotel and he was questioned in the probe. The newly broadcast tape relates relates to that connection in that one of the participants, Roman Abramov was employed by Packer firm earning a high salary despite having no relevant experience or an academic degree, according to a television news report aired in November.
How will this damage not only Yair - but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Over the past months, the fact that Netanyahus adult children enjoy an on-call driver and 24-hour bodyguard on the public dime has been a matter of controversy and public discussion, with the Netanyahus insisting that the arrangements were dictated by the security services and they merely acceded. This episode shows them abusing both their privilege and public money. The television reporter who broke the story of the stripper banter tape emphasized numerous times that Yair Netanyahus security guard was required to be by his side at all times - including when he was getting lap dances and he clearly had no choice but to spend his Friday night in the strip club. The tape strengthens the argument of those who charge that the Netanyahu's squander taxpayer shekels and bear no regard for the government employees who serve them.
And what about the gas deal?
From a political perspective, the most damaging quotes on the recording are the remarks by Netanyahu to Maimon flippantly joking that my father got you $20 billion and my dad got a great deal from your dad. The Israeli public was stunned to learn that Yair Netanyahu and gas tycoon Kobi Maimons son were friends, blithely fronting each other hundreds of dollars in strip clubs in 2015, when the political world was in a frenzy over the terms of a controversial deal between the Israeli government and the countrys gas companies.
Netanyahu did everything in his power to ensure that Israels government approved the development of the controversial Leviathan natural gas field in order to give Israel a second source of gas supply while potentially turning it into a gas exporter. The Leviathan project hit a major obstacle in March when Israels High Court of Justice blocked a previous agreement between the fields shareholders - which included Maimon - and the Israeli state, the terms of which would have stayed unchanged for 10 years. The deal was opposed by opposition parties and public advocacy groups on grounds that the corporations in the deal would control too much of Israels natural gas supply. Leviathan, one of the largest offshore discoveries of the past decade, was found off Israels Mediterranean coast in 2010.
How did Yair Netanyahu and his family react to the report? Did he apologize?
On Monday night, following the airing of the news, Yair Netanyahu released a statement saying:
"Tonight I watched a disgraceful, yellow-press report that presented illegal recordings of a conversation that took place two and a half years ago. In a night conversation, under the influence of alcohol, I spoke nonsense about women and other things that were better left unsaid.
"These remarks do not reflect who I am, the values on which I was raised and my beliefs. I regret the remarks and apologize if anyone was hurt by them. In addition, the things I said to Maimon were a dumb joke and joking around with him, as anyone could tell. I never took an interest in the natural-gas framework agreement and never had any idea about its details."
A statement from the Netanyahu family called the report "cheap and malicious gossip regarding jokes that were made after a night of drinking, that dont reflect Yairs standing and were taken out of context from an illegal wiretap."
It added that the prime minister has no connection with Kobi Maimon, whom he met only once 10 years ago. Prime Minister Netanyahu transferred the gas deal because he wanted to maintain competition for the Tamar gas field, owned by Kobi Maimon. The prime minister did not know anything about the relationship between his son Yair and Kobi Maimons son. Yair was in no way involved with the gas deal, and if he spoke about the matter, he obviously did this in jest.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly addressed reporters' questions about the incident, charging that one of his offices drivers had secretly recorded people who were guarded by bodyguards and then tried to sell the recordings, to at least two media outlets, for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. These outlets refused. He then indirectly addressed the degrading language his son used in regard to women, saying that he was committed to empowering women, saying that honoring them represented values we believe in and which we instill in our children.