It’s impossible for your jaw not to drop at the wickedness, gall and arrogance displayed by the inhabitants of the prime minister’s residence. The more the existential distress deepens for hundreds of thousands of unemployed Israelis, the more they cry out for help and are denied the aid they deserve by a parsimonious government, the greater the Netanyahus’ appetite to raid the state coffers.
Instead of restraint, modesty and setting an example as other Israeli leaders have done in the past and cutting his salary a bit, Benjamin Netanyahu is exploiting the public coffers as if possessed by a demon.
Bibi and Sara have always had a problem with his pay slip. She often complains about the much higher salaries of the army chief, the police commissioner and the Supreme Court president. Who are they compared to him?
And don’t pester her with trivia, like the fact that we pay for the prime minister’s housing, or that their expenses come out of our pockets or that even their private estate in Caesarea is maintained by public funds. She prefers to focus on the cash.
Previous prime ministers, too, whose personal wealth was nowhere near the Netanyahus’, would grumble about the low sum deposited in their accounts and the unfair tax on the armored-limousine benefit, which played havoc with their salaries.
All those prime ministers, even the most self-indulgent, had the grace to do their complaining behind the scenes. Unlike the emperor and his wife, it never occurred to their predecessors to put on the theater of the absurd that we saw this week. They sent their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the persons of Likud lawmakers Miki Zohar and Shlomo Karai, to seek alms for the paupers of Balfour Street.
Only people lacking self-awareness like those two clowns, who have made groveling at the feet of the prime minister, Sara and their first-born son Yair a way of life, could have put on such a show. One compared the prime minister to an emotional “cripple,” wondering day and night how to support his children. The other, who has a PhD in both industrial engineering and acting like a fool, spewed enough inane comments that even the usually patient chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni, shouted at him: “You’re doing endless damage!”
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Pay attention to this Karai; he’s well on the way to taking his place alongside Public Security Minister Amir Ohana as the residence’s pet. He has chosen the Yair route; his parliamentary questions assail the attorney general. His tweets attack the U.S.-based Wexner Foundation – word for word repeating junior’s ruminations.
In other countries this wouldn’t have worked – countries that aren’t exhausted by pretentious and prolonged one-man rule, where their citizens’ senses haven’t been dulled by hundreds of scandals and foul-smelling stories that have become routine. In other places, what happened in the Knesset committee would have brought 100,000 people outside the prime minister’s residence that very night. They would have stayed there until he withdrew his request and apologized.
He would have blamed Zohar and Karai and the acting director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ronen Peretz, who was dispatched on Netanyahu’s behalf to explain the request. “They wanted to help me too much,” he surely would have said. Or maybe: “This issue eluded me during the coronavirus crisis.”
“What’s happening there?” I asked a former senior person at the Prime Minister’s Office, an expert on the family’s funds. “It’s the crazy way they perceive themselves compared to the rest of humanity,” he said. “The person hasn’t been born who will say to them: This isn’t legal, this isn’t right. They systematically destroy the legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office” – Shlomit Barnea Farago, who after years of attacks by the lady is now also in the sights of her son, the tweeter of filth.
“They instill fear and trembling in all the gatekeepers, in their mafioso way, via threats, slurs and dirt. Their main aim is that the only ‘oversight’ of them will be in the hands of the director general, Peretz, and the office’s budget director, Drorit Steinmetz, who’s under Sara’s thumb. That is, zero oversight and a green light for running wild.”
Up in the high life
The biggest scandal is the villa in Caesarea. Another person familiar with the situation has told me: “The day will come when Bibi is no longer in office, the reign of fear has vanished and a criminal investigation is underway into everything that has happened there – the theft, fraud and breach of trust in the millions of shekels. He and Sara will blame the bureaucrats, but they’re not patsies. They’re preparing with documents, with recordings.”
Let it be known to every unemployed Israeli who’s having problems filling the cart at the supermarket, every single mother who was earning a pittance and has been sitting at home for over three months now, and everyone whose world has fallen apart: This family’s greed and miserliness is equivalent only to its wealth, about 50 million shekels ($14.5 million) according to Forbes magazine.
And their (his) earning potential in civilian life is tremendous. Yet they’re now demanding that the state pay all the bills sent from their private home in Caesarea, with no review, no oversight, no conditions. The official justification is “routine maintenance” so that the prime minister “can do his job.”
If the lady decides to replace the kitchen and install sanitary fittings from Japan, the state will pay. If her beloved helpmate wants to redo the swimming pool into the shape of her profile, the state will pay. If Sara fancies a new tiled roof, say from Sweden, or glass dishes from Venice or a regular supply of flowers from the Netherlands, the refund is on the way, including interest if necessary.
If Yair invites over his pals from their nights out at the Pussycat Club and lays on trays of sushi from his favorite top restaurants, it’s on us, all of us. Everything so that the leader “can do his job.”
This isn’t entirely inaccurate. Maybe when Sara and Yair are satisfied they won’t make life miserable for their provider because of the paltry pay slip. They won’t scorn him for his flaccidity in the face of the bureaucrats and legal advisers. He’ll then be able to work serenely during weekends in Caesarea.
That is, he’ll be able to take a suite at the Dan Caesarea Hotel and hold his meetings there, or mooch at a friend’s nearby villa; heaven forfend, not at home, never at home. Sara doesn’t allow it. Except for the very closest advisers, whose lucky feet are occasionally allowed to tread the carpets, politicians and senior officials are verboten. This isn’t a wayside inn. This isn’t WeWork. For that there are hotels and offices.
This wantonness, which Netanyahu is trying to make official with the help of the Knesset, doesn’t exist in any enlightened country. It doesn’t happen at Downing Street or at the White House, where all the expenses of the residential wing are incumbent on the presidential family. (After he left office, Barack Obama said the bureaucrats would count the rolls of toilet paper used.)
Yet the Knesset Finance Committee is set to approve this orgy of corruption on Sunday if our pauper from Caesarea doesn’t come to his senses and change his mind.
The one who came to his senses and cut his losses is the “alternate prime minister,” Benny Gantz. In a letter to the Knesset Finance Committee he announced he’d forgo all the alternate pleasures Netanyahu has wafted upon him: Storage and moving costs, household staff, and maintenance and hospitality outlays at his Rosh Ha’ayin home. He’s also not accepting funding for feeding and housing his wife and family. This is how a leader is expected to behave.
When Bibi and Sara agree to do without something – however symbolic and tiny – it will be the headline of the century.
The silence of the predator
In the ignorant and inflamed mob that cursed a journalist, Amnon Abramovich, and threatened to do him harm at the pro-Bibi rally outside the Tel Aviv Museum, one bully stood out, a guy named Itzik Zarka.
In his WhatsApp and Facebook profile pictures, he’s planting a kiss on the cheek of Netanyahu, who’s radiating delight. The two are documented in further photographs, showering affection on each other. The caption for Zarka’s WhatsApp profile says, “Our Father in Heaven, I love you.” Apparently the reference isn’t necessarily to the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
Not all the Bibi-ists who were at the museum plaza can take pleasure in such closeness to the prime minister. But nearly all who budged from Facebook and took to the streets were willing to kill for him. If not kill, at least maim or threaten a bit.
So who’s a better target for them than an articulate, influential, leftist journalist who spares no criticism of our father in heaven? Were it not for a squad of police officers who protected him, Abramovich, who bears the scars of his serious wounds during the Yom Kippur War, could have suffered a pummeling.
This wasn’t the first time. A similar fate would have beset another TV journalist, Raviv Drucker, if he had found himself there. Maybe also Rina Matzliah. In the Israel tainted with Bibi-ism, the lives of journalists who don’t please the alternate Putin and his son are in a clear and present danger.
Netanyahu’s silence despite his fans’ repulsive thuggery can only be interpreted as a wink and a nod: Keep doing what you’re doing, go for it. There’s no avoiding the conclusion that the man wants to see blood, smashed skulls or a journalist’s broken arm. He’ll of course “deplore” this while adding a doleful statement about the threats to harm him, one of the most protected leaders in the world, and his son, who is also protected.
He’ll provide a condemnation, but there will also be great satisfaction: The deterrence will have been achieved. The journalists will be careful. They’ll think twice before going on the air with unpalatable recordings, they’ll bite their tongues before providing a stinging analysis or investigative report. They’ll self-censor, even if they don’t admit it. Maybe some will resign.
In the ‘60s the Haifa Theater put on the play “Rhinoceros” by Eugène Ionesco, translated by Nissim Aloni. In the story, citizens of a certain town become rhinoceroses and the last man standing remains human, determined to fight the herd.
It’s an allegory of the nationalism that had inundated Europe just a few years earlier. From a review of the play in one newspaper, the Hebrew word “to rhinocerize” was derived.
Every man for himself. Collegiality isn’t at its peak and job security is very shaky. The new rhinoceroses are observing the cruel king of the savannah and lowering their heads in fear.
This time, Gantz reacted swiftly. He didn’t tarry for half a day until producing a pale statement the way he did two weeks ago. That was when Netanyahu demanded Drucker’s arrest for his investigative report on the news-for-favors corruption charges involving a telecom tycoon. This time, Gantz tweeted a condemnation.
That’s the bare minimum, but in these dark days, we must be grateful for small mercies. History won’t flatter him much for this. He’ll be remembered as someone who sheltered in the big shadow of the inciters and encouragers of bloodlust among the prime minister’s aides.
For 40 days Gantz has been wandering among us under the titles of “alternate prime minister” and defense minister. Every week his Kahol Lavan party loses one or two likely Knesset seats in the next election. His credit line has nearly run out. What has his ridiculous title brought him but ridicule, disappointment and frustration? Tar and feathers in the town square.
He hoped that the “visibility” would do the trick – the title, the statement to the media before the cabinet meeting, the trappings of respect, the Office of the Alternate Prime Minister that his associate Hod Betzer (who’s calling himself the director general of the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office) is establishing.
Gantz’s voters, those who had been in despair at the corruption, bickering and fecklessness, are now fed up with him. They were in despair because of the lip service despite Netanyahu’s horror attacks on the law enforcement system.
Gantz is apparently beginning to realize that in the tension between the fear that Netanyahu will seek an early election and his own total self-effacement because of that, he might lose his political right to exist. On Sunday the Finance Committee will hold another meeting, where maybe Kahol Lavan legislators will show up and courageously oppose the royal house’s demands. The question is how Netanyahu will react.
In the Netanyahu-Gantz reconciliation summits, they agreed to appear together at Knesset votes, or maybe not. There’s nothing in between. This week they already acted on this agreement; the quarrels between the Gantzes and the Bibi-ists are supposed to be kept to a simmer.
But as Netanyahu keeps challenging Gantz, who keeps sagging in the opinion polls, Israel apparently won’t see domestic tranquility anytime soon. The bad blood is flowing.
Leftward ho for Lapid?
In the seven years since Yair Lapid was first elected to the Knesset, he made a covenant with rightist Naftali Bennett, was appointed finance minister, was fired by Netanyahu, turned out to be a two-bit politician, joined up with Gantz and was abandoned by him. But it now appears that Lapid has found his place in politics. The role of opposition leader suits him. He has slid into it naturally.
His principles have been preserved, his speeches are more polished than ever and his interviews have dropped the swagger. He’s among the few politicians who appear to mean what they say and say what they mean.
Meanwhile, he has stopped masquerading as a rightist, a charade that the public with its healthy instincts never bought. In every opinion poll he was always put left of center. For years he unsuccessfully fought this image. Today too he defines himself as a “national-minded” person. He has dumped the pomposity, at least for the foreseeable future.
The reason for this U-turn is the ballot box, of course. A bevy of cows are grazing on the right: Likud, Yamina and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. At the moment, the soft rightists who voted for Kahol Lavan are favoring Gantz, who has crawled into a unity government. There is nothing there for Lapid.
At the same time, the left has almost emptied out: Kahol Lavan’s empire has disintegrated, the half of it that joined the government looks like it’s marching proudly toward extinction, while the Labor Party is just a blessed memory and Meretz remains a niche party.
The “center-left” is empty, so that’s where Lapid is aiming. His Yesh Atid-Telem alliance has to break through the ceiling of the 14 or 15 Knesset seats in the opinion polls and hit a number starting with a 2.
The change was clear in the last two campaigns: In Kahol Lavan’s “cockpit” he behaved as the leftist. After the March 2 election, he was the main proponent of a minority government, with the support of the Joint List of Arab parties. (Telem leader Moshe Ya’alon agreed.)
Now, in the 40 days he has led the Knesset’s most eclectic opposition ever, he has no qualms about joining the no-confidence vote the Joint List proposed this week under the heading “the annexation and apartheid government must fall.”
In his previous incarnations, Lapid would never have dreamed of this. But after he agreed to get help from the Arab parties’ votes to form a government, it wouldn’t be a good look to boycott them today. He realizes that to be effective he has to cooperate with the second largest party in the opposition.
The necessary swerve to the left has forced him to end his childish tiff with Haaretz. The historic détente between him and the newspaper he once called “neither Zionist nor a newspaper” began with an op-ed by him a month ago and an interview with Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn and his deputy, Lior Kodner, in a weekly podcast.
Is this a short-term tactic? Once he believes most of the left’s votes are in his pocket, will he go back to touting the word “center” and stressing his rightist positions on a wide variety of issues? Well, Lapid is a systematic and determined person.
As long as Kahol Lavan and Labor voters are despairing in the middle of nowhere, Lapid will get to them with great delight on the way to rebuilding himself as a governing alternative.