Lonely, but Pampered, at the Top

More than Netanyahu's hedonism, the latest brouhaha has revealed the prime minister's isolation.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could speak freely about the "Bibi-Tours" affair, he would say something like, "A group of tycoons who control the media and other sectors is out to destroy me because I'm reforming the natural gas industry and the media. I'm lowering prices. I'm bad for their business. They want someone else in this office, maybe a woman, whom they could boss around. It's no coincidence this erupted right when it became apparent the Sheshinski recommendations were going to become law. Since when has Channel 2 given such credit to Channel 10? Since when has Yedioth Ahronoth given reporter Raviv Drucker such a generous follow-up? What, is that a coincidence?

"This, too, will pass. I'm motivated by a historic mission. I address the Jewish people's most important and crucial issues. If every prime minister here is examined with a magnifying glass, I'm under a microscope. Oh well."

Illustration Bibi and Sara Netanyahu
Amos Biderman

These are not the prime minister's words, but they express his mood. He wraps himself in a victim's cloak. He jokes to his associates, "Christianity believes that Jesus walked on water. Millions of Christians come to Lake Kinneret to touch the holy water. Let's say I were to invite the media to fly with me to the Kinneret one day. All the photographers would stand at the edge of the lake, and I would go down to the shore and march calmly atop the water. What would they write in the papers the next day? 'Netanyahu doesn't know how to swim.'"

Nine days have passed since Channel 10's show "Hamakor" aired its expose on the Netanyahus' travels. Since then not a day has gone by without some media outlet, usually more than one, discussing the affair. Even as these words are being written, Netanyahu's staff is sorting through queries. They haven't provided practical answers to almost any of the claims. Instead, Netanyahu chose once again, in an interview via YouTube and Channel 2 news, to revert to the show that's been ongoing for 15 years: "They're Slinging Mud at Sara."

On the evening when the investigation's findings were aired, last Wednesday, the Netanyahus took off for a very brief visit to Russia. Before he left, Netanyahu thought that the story wouldn't get off the ground. That day there had been a terror attack in Jerusalem, and missiles were raining on Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva. Netanyahu was calm for another reason: He believed, correctly, that the investigation would not find evidence of double-funding of flights. He was asked to respond to questions in that regard, and apparently his answers were satisfactory. But there were further developments. The state comptroller is already in the picture - Micha Lindenstrauss is not a person to let go of such a bonbon.

On Monday afternoon the Likud faction convened for its routine meeting, the last in the winter session before the Knesset goes out to recess. The media were also invited. The prime minister entered after an elegant 30-minute delay. He didn't bother to apologize.

Netanyahu sat down and opened with a security-related monologue: "We won't agree to a trickle of shooting ... If it continues, there will be an even more painful response by the Israel Defense Forces ... We are adopting an aggressive and deterrent policy ... The entire region is abuzz, the Middle East is moving. The old order is broken, the new order has yet to be created."

Not a word of that was aired on the evening news broadcasts. Netanyahu's office considered this further evidence of a conspiracy. The next day an interview with a former friend, Roni Mana, was aired. Against the backdrop of a construction project Mana is marketing, he poured out his bitter feelings toward the Netanyahus. For years he was considered a close friend and occasional driver who also provided other services, until Netanyahu was once again elected prime minister.

From that moment, Mana was kept at a distance. In the world of businessman and entrepreneur Mana, such public ostracism is not only a blow to his dignity, but to his livelihood as well. He waited patiently until the right moment: "I loved her [Sara ] more than he [Netanyahu ] loved her," said Mana. He added: "Life is like a supermarket. In the end you arrive at the checkout counter." With such profound thoughts he could go far on the next season of "Big Brother."

Netanyahu's associates are convinced that Mana is one of the people who contributed to both the journalistic investigation and the lawsuit filed by the Netanyahus' former housekeeper, Lillian Peretz. Mana denies it. Netanyahu's associates say it was more than one person. That means Netanyahu has to do some soul-searching: Why do people who were part of his intimate circle for years turn into avengers when they leave? Why is it hard to find former aides who are willing to defend Netanyahu?

"He takes people, becomes close with them, shares his secrets with them, but when he gets to the top, or when the missus isn't satisfied, he gets rid of them," said one of those former aides. "People who spit blood for him, who worked day and night for him, who'd take a bullet for him. Suddenly they find themselves asking for an appointment [to meet him] and they get one for three months later. And then, two days in advance, the appointment is canceled and a new one is set for four months later, which will also be canceled."

More than Netanyahu's hedonism, which is nothing new, the story revealed the prime minister's isolation. Burned human bridges and lots of desire for revenge. In the end, it leads to an investigation.

On his watch

Defense Minister Ehud Barak sometimes wears a Patek Philippe Swiss watch on his left wrist. One of the newspapers reported its value at NIS 142,000. It recently starred at the top of a long list of luxury watches worn by Israel's public figures.

At the Labor Party convention Sunday, as the party celebrated its release from Barak's yoke, MK Amir Peretz devoted part of his speech to the ostentatious watch as a metaphor to say Barak dismantles both watches and political parties.

Barak can give as good as he gets.

"I'm willing to sell this watch for NIS 42,000," he has said to an interlocutor. "Based on what the paper reported, that will leave the buyer with a NIS 100,000 profit. But the truth is that I'm the one who will be turning quite a profit - I entered a second-hand watch store in New York and bought it for far less than NIS 42,000. They could have checked with me, but they didn't. They wanted to present me as the greatest hedonist of all."

Many people heard the watch story from Barak over the past week. Barak and Netanyahu are often in the same boat: Both are periodically attacked over their love for the good life. Barak got it over the Paris hotel suites. Then it was Netanyahu and the Connaught Hotel in London. Then Barak and his first class seat on El Al, and of course his apartment in Akirov Towers. And now it's Netanyahu's turn again.

Aside from Ehud Olmert, their colleague in the prime ministers' club, several aspects of whose (ostensible ) hedonism are now being discussed in court, no members of the political establishment have been such a target of the media's anger, and sometimes self-righteousness, over la dolce vita that ordinary mortals - even journalists - will never have a chance to taste.

Barak is following the Bibi-Tours story with mixed feelings. He admits "there is something distasteful" about some of Netanyahu's purported actions.

"I'm not enthusiastic about all those trips," he said this week in private talks. "But the public discourse about the affair is superficial and disproportionate. It involves fakeness, dilettantism, ignorance and a lot of frothing at the mouth. I suggest that the media examine not only Netanyahu but all the former prime ministers, all the MKs and the ministers, and see who was upgraded, who took his wife along, and at whose expense. I suggest checking which of the prime ministers - not I - traveled in private planes while in office. I suggest checking who was once stuck in Cyprus in a private plane that broke down. I suggest checking which of the former presidents traveled in tycoons' private planes."

Barak told interlocutors that he wouldn't have asked philanthropists to pay for his wife's flights, as Netanyahu is said to have done. He would have paid for Nili. But he expects the country's leading media outlets to be more serious. "This place has taken on the nature of a reality show. Not everything is Jackie and Nofar," he said, showing surprising expertise about the entertainment news.

Over a year ago Barak was asked to return about $2,000 after it was discovered that one of his flights from the United States to Israel was upgraded from business class - which is permitted - to first class. The Knesset Ethics Committee decided that although Barak has the status of a former prime minister, and while El Al automatically upgrades former prime ministers and presidents to first class, he should have followed the rules governing a minister.

"They asked me to return it, and I did. But my firsthand experience proved to me how shallow and superficial the discussion was," he says. "At the time I made a simple request: Go to El Al and Continental and ask for the list of MKs and ministers who flew with them, and see who was upgraded to first class, and make them all return the money. Even today I suggest: Check everyone's norms. If you don't want people to fly on private planes, then forbid it."

Blame game

It's no wonder that Barak is the only non-Likud minister who is coming to Netanyahu's defense. He is undoubtedly the politician closest to Netanyahu. When he defends him, he is defending himself. He has been defense minister for almost four years. He has spent two years and a day in Netanyahu's cabinet. He occasionally warns about an approaching "political tsunami," but he remains in the government. He refuses to place all the responsibility for the diplomatic freeze on Netanyahu.

"This whole blame festival, as if Netanyahu isn't doing anything and the government isn't doing anything, as if Tzipi Livni or Haim Ramon [both of Kadima] would have brought peace already had they been conducting the negotiations, it's not serious. It's not the exclusive fault of the government that there is no diplomatic process. It's also the fault of the Palestinians and the Americans, and of circumstances that nobody controls.

"It's true the times demand an Israeli initiative more than ever. Netanyahu is responsible for coming out with a daring, far-reaching diplomatic initiative to settle our relationship with the Palestinians. We are approaching September [the date of the Palestinian declaration of a state within the 1967 borders]. The world is liable to leave us behind. The moment the world recognizes the 1967 borders, how will the discussion of settlement blocs look, when the entire world thinks that they are no longer ours?

"I'm working with all my meager strength in order to promote a [diplomatic] process. Anyone who tells me to leave doesn't understand what will happen if we get into an election campaign. It will be six months of nothing happening, because during elections you abandon everything."

Asked whether he still believes in Netanyahu, he responded, "I understand what's preventing him from doing it - an assessment of the diplomatic situation as well as a political assessment. He is liable be voted out, which happened to him after the Wye Summit in 1998. The right brought him down because he went too far. We brought him down because it was too late. In my opinion, he can still choose between being [Menachem] Begin or [Yitzhak] Shamir. It's not too late."

And Barak has a suggestion for Netanyahu, something that he heard last week from his friend U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates quoted President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said that he didn't serve public opinion, he served the public. That's a good idea.