Opinion

Netanyahus' Spending Sprees a Sign of Israel's Disintegrating Democracy

One of the typical acts of corruption is the looting of public coffers for the personal needs of the leader and his household. This elevates Netanyahu’s image to that of an emperor of sorts touched by the divine spirit

The Netanyahu family
Kobi Gideon/'GPO

About six months ago, an agreement was reached to have the writings of historian Benzion Netanyahu housed at the new national library that is under construction in Jerusalem. His son, Israel’s prime minister, had only one modest demand: that the material be stored in an underground bunker, protected against any possible damage, including a missile attack.

The planners agreed, but work on the library suffered delays. Engineers from Switzerland were flown to Israel. Ultimately they agreed on a bunker that is 30 meters (98 feet) deep, with a 5.3-meter concrete ceiling and metal reinforcements three times the usual thickness. The construction of the bunker led to a delay in the project and increased the cost.

“This issue came at quite a late stage. There was a certain demand that came from government officials,” admitted one of the architects, in response to reporting on the matter by the Kan public broadcasting corporation’s Moti Gilat.

I recalled the bunker this week when I read coverage regarding planned renovations at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. The media was told that the renovations were the initiative of Drorit Steinmetz, the budget and project department director at the Prime Minister’s Office. The reason: “The house plays host to world dignitaries.”

For its part, the Jerusalem Municipality “volunteered” (at the city’s property taxpayers’ expense) to repair the street and sidewalks in the area, to replace streetlights and to deal with landscaping and trash receptacles. But then came another demand from the Prime Minister’s Office: Upgrading street lighting to a design that will allow flags to be hung vertically from them, “like outside the President’s Residence.”

At that point, the municipality asked that the expense be shared. The committee that reviews bids for government work approved the purchase of 11 lampposts at the state’s expense, at a cost of 326,000 shekels ($90,000), and Jerusalem city hall agreed to buy eight more of them. Over half a million shekels will be wasted on the upgrading of the lampposts on this one street alone.

One of the typical acts of corruption since the dawn of history has been the looting of public coffers for the personal and family needs of the leader and his household. Such corruption is reflected in part, of course, in the accumulation of property, luxuries, indulgences and various other caprices. It is also reflected in the glorification of the ruler’s image.

But in the past that was characteristic of autocratic regimes. Israel still considers itself a democracy, but one of the signs of its disintegration is its surrender to the Netanyahus’ demands. Much has already been written about their appetite for public funding of their lifestyle, from filling the swimming pool at their Caesarea home to dog food for their dog, Kaya.

But the chutzpah and the aggressiveness are also reflected in acts of public commemoration. A highway exit at the edge of Jerusalem, the Benzion interchange, was named in memory of Netanyahu Sr. a year after his death (despite the fact that the usual rules require a waiting period of at least three years). There is also a square on the approaches to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl named after the prime minister’s grandfather Nathan Mileikowsky. Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan, who is buried on Mount Herzl, was long ago anointed the national fallen soldier.

Sometimes the line between the material and the spiritual is blurred, and the two spheres come together. When the prime minister’s sons, Yair and Avner, receive unprecedented personal security and transportation services, in Israel and abroad, that of course saves their tightfisted family a bundle of cash. But it also elevates Netanyahu’s image to that of an emperor of sorts, who, along with his family, has been touched by the divine spirit.

By that same logic, there is nothing barring forcing the housekeeper to become a caregiver to the prime minister’s wife’s father or ordering gourmet takeout meals, requiring the national library to build a bunker, or demanding street renovations and the replacement of street lighting near the Prime Minister’s Residence.

The gatekeepers are either exhausted, resigning or were appointed up front to keep their heads down. There will always be people who will be happy to be self-deprecating toadies. The Reshet television franchise decided to produce a documentary two years ago about Shmuel Ben Artzi, Sara Netanyahu’s rather anonymous father. El Al Israel Airlines produced a nauseating public relations show, featuring the first lady’s career as a flight attendant.

There is no end to this. This whole story is not only a case of bad taste, style and ethics. It involves a spending spree costing millions.

The National Library of Israel responded: “Uri Misgav’s article is a rehash of false news that have been denied in the past regarding a link between protection for the National Library’s collection in its new building and Prof. Benzion Netanyahu’s papers."

"The National Library is entrusted with more than 1,000 personal collections of leading figures from the humanities, culture, and research, including the collections of Martin Buber, Ahad Ha’am, Naomi Shemer, David Grossman and Yishayahu Leibowitz. … The National Library has long been in contact with the Netanyahu family over the transfer of Prof. Netanyahu’s personal papers to the library’s collections. The Netanyahu family has never made a request of any kind for special treatment for Prof. Netanyahu’s papers. … All of the papers in the library’s collection are dealt with equally.”

"All such collections in the new building will be protected at the highest standards," the library stated, adding: “At no stage were directives issued by the Prime Minister’s Office to plan a bunker of one kind or another and certainly no condition was imposed regarding the potential contribution of Prof. Netanyahu’s papers.”